The Gannett House will be restored as project organizers seek input on what the museum should include.

Unveiling the sign
Board members and staff unveiling a sign. Photo credit Andy Molloy, CentralMaine

Construction is expected to begin soon at the Gannett House, as the nonprofit organization that now owns it seeks to preserve and restore the historic structure itself and plans for its future as a museum dedicated to the First Amendment.

Work on the State Street property next door to the Blaine House is expected to begin this fall with an immediate focus on securing and preserving it before winter strikes, as planning continues for what will take place within its walls.

“The construction we’re looking to do this fall is going to be on the exterior and mostly maintenance-related to make sure the home is secure,” Rebecca Lazure, executive director of The Gannett House Project, said Monday. “We feel good about the soundness of the property. There are some definite visible repairs that are needed, but there is also a good sense that this is a house that was built very, very well.”

The ornate but in recent years neglected building at 184 State St. was built in 1911 by William H. Gannett, a major publisher and founder of Comfort magazine, the first American periodical to reach a circulation of 1 million, as a wedding present for his son Guy P. Gannett, founder of the Guy Gannett Publishing Company. The family’s company grew to include the Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Portland Press Herald newspapers as well as WGAN, which is now WGME television, and WGAN radio. The family sold the business in 1998.

Gannett family members are now leading efforts to turn the former family home into a museum they hope will foster dialogue and discussion about the First Amendment, which guarantees Americans’ freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government.

“My sister, Terry Hopkins, and I are excited to bring our grandfather’s former home back to life,” Genie Gannett, president of Gannett House Project’s board of directors, said in a news release.

Organizers are working with a museum consultant and meeting with stakeholders including industry representatives, educators and others to hear what they would like to see the museum do.

She said that planning includes what will be in the interactive museum building and what sort of programming it could offer outside of the building, such as educational programs for students.

“There needs to be an interpretive plan for the house, but also what can we do outside of the house to promote our mission?” Lazure said. “There is a real desire for this mission to spread not only in Augusta but also across the state.”

Lazure said the importance of the First Amendment and the rights it protects is increasingly relevant in the current political climate.

“There’s a pretty compelling call for a museum of this kind right now,” she said. “The political atmosphere is so fraught with strong opinions on both sides, locally and nationally, and promoting active speech on both sides in a nonpartisan venue is one way to move away from isolating opinions and toward dialogue.”

Project organizers have selected an Augusta-based firm, Ganneston Construction Corp., as the construction manager.

“Ganneston is excited to be working on this historic project,” Stacey Morrison, CEO and owner of Ganneston Construction, said in a news release. “This is the start of a phase of work that will maintain important elements of the home’s character.”

Lazure said organizers made it a priority to hire a Maine-based firm to oversee the project. Camden-based engineering firm Gartley & Dorsky will also work on the project, helping ensure work is done to the satisfaction of Maine Historic Preservation Commission and that it follows the standards of the federal Secretary of the Interior for historic buildings.

On Monday, organizers placed a banner in front of the Mediterranean Revival style building which says “First Amendment Museum, Under Construction.”

Lazure said they hung the banner to let people know the project is underway and work is beginning.

Programming is expected to begin this fall, though not in the under-renovation Gannett House building. A professional development day for educators, “The First Amendment in Your Classroom,” is planned at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center at the University of Maine at Augusta in October.

Article originally by Keith Edwards for Central Maine.

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A new museum dedicated to the First Amendment will have artifacts from the journalism industry, exhibits on First Amendment champions, and newspapers and other publications by the Gannett family and other Maine publishers on display.

But organizers say the museum in the 1911 ornate but run-down former Gannett family home beside the Blaine House isn’t really going to be about the exhibits.

“It will have some artifacts, but it’s really about the ideas,” Genie Gannett said of the concept.

The museum in the Gannett House at 184 State St. in Augusta is scheduled to open in late 2017.

Genie Gannett, president of the Gannett House Project, and her sister Terry Gannett Hopkins, vice president of the organization, announced Tuesday the purchase of the building by the Gannett House Project, through the Pat and John Gannett Family Foundation, which is named for their parents.

Gannett Sisters
Genie Gannett, right, and Terry Gannett Hopkins. Photo credit Andy Molloy, Central Maine

They said it will serve as a “concept museum” about the First Amendment and the freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of people to assemble peaceably and to petition the government.

“The role of the Gannett House is to inspire the next generation and educate them and instill that appreciation for the First Amendment,” Hopkins said.

The Gannett House Project recently acquired the building from the state for $378,000 and plans to put about $1.5 million of private money into turning it into an interactive tribute to the First Amendment. The house, most recently used by the State Planning Office, was originally the home of late Guy P. Gannett, a newspaper owner and freedom of speech defender.

The yellow stucco Mediterranean Revival building was built in 1911 by publishing magnate William H. Gannett as a wedding gift to his son, Guy P. Gannett, who founded the Guy Gannett Publishing Co. The company grew to include the Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Portland Press Herald newspapers and WGAN-TV – later WGME – and WGAN radio. William H. Gannett founded Comfort magazine, the first American periodical to reach a circulation of 1 million.

The museum will have displays telling the story of First Amendment champions, including Elijah Parish Lovejoy and Harriet Beecher Stowe, will explain the First Amendment and the rights it protects, and have a digital archive of historic Maine newspapers.

Earle Shettleworth Jr., state historian, said the building itself is a significant property, part of the State House complex, and part of an area listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“To assure the future of this house is very important,” Shettleworth said, noting the building’s unusual-for-Maine stucco walls and grand, modern and fashionable styling made a dramatic statement when it was built. “To place it on State Street, right next to the Blaine House, was making an even further statement of, really, the stature of the Gannett family and stature of their newspapers.”

The Gannett family sold the company – by then called Guy Gannett Communications – in 1998. Guy P. Gannett sold the house in the 1920s, when the family moved to Cape Elizabeth.

The 5,000-square-foot house, once grand, has deteriorated over the years, especially since it was left vacant, in 2010, when the State Planning Office moved out. The state acquired it in the 1970s.

Genie Gannett said the first steps will be to make sure the building is stable and hire a planner to design the museum. It will need extensive restoration and renovation, she said.

She said her group hopes to have the place ready to open in late 2017, which she said is an ambitious timeline.

She said it had hoped originally to have started sooner, but the process of buying the property from the state took longer than expected.

Originally published by Keith Edwards for the Portland Press Herald.

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