Rufus Porter Museum purchases new home

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

The Rufus Porter Museum’s Board of Directors has purchased the Webb/Gallinari house at the corner of Main and Church Street in the heart of downtown — and they have some very ambitious plans.

Through a combination of grants and donations, the board plans to move the museum’s red house at 67 North High Street — the 1789 Nathan Church

BIG CULTURAL BOOST FOR DOWNTOWN — Rufus Porter Museum Board of Directors Co-Presidents Julie Lundberg, left, and Nelle Ely, right, flank Greg Marston, the museum’s chairman of preservation, as they stand in front of the Webb/Gallinari house at the corner of Main and Church Streets. The museum has bought the historic circa 1830 house — the oldest property remaining on Main Street — for a new cultural headquarters and will also be moving the 1789 Nathan Church parsonage, now located at 67 North High Street, to the property. The former parsonage will be attached to the left of the Webb/Gallinari house. Plans are to open at the new downtown location by the spring of 2012. (Geraghty photo)

parsonage, prized for its restored Porter School murals — to the Webb/Gallinari house property and open at the new downtown location by the spring of 2012. The plans include major restorations at the Webb/Gallinari house, formerly owned by Sandra Gallinari, which was damaged by fire last year.

The museum, which first opened in the summer of 2005, has received national publicity from the first year, and draws visitors from across the country. Porter was among the best known of America’s folk artists.

Alan Manoian, director of Economic and Community Development for Bridgton, is enthusiastic about the move and believes the museum is destined to become the hub for activity in the town.

“Historic preservation is the pillar of economic development,” he told members of the museum’s board of directors, who gathered last Thursday at member Julie Lundberg’s house to brainstorm different funding sources for the ambitious project. Manoian indicated the town may be able to contribute funds from its revolving Community Development Block Grant Program to help restore the Main Street façade of the Webb/Gallinari house.

Along with other downtown projects like the new Bridgton Library courtyard next door and the restoration of the historic William Perry House just up the hill, the relocation of the Rufus Porter Museum to downtown will greatly further efforts to revitalize the economy of Main Street, Manoian said.

“People can visit Gallery 302, go to Blueberries & Me (gift shop), then walk across the street and visit the museum,” he said. “We need to place these things in physical close proximity to one another.” Manoian said he’s glad to see the red house will be located next to Stevens Brook (the Webb/Gallinari property has extensive brook frontage).

Board member Beth Cossey said she’s read the Lake Region is developing and growing faster than any other region in Cumberland County, and museum supporters are proud to be part of that effort.

“People have come up and told me that amazing things are happening in downtown Bridgton,” she said, referring to such plans as the historic William Perry house, the old Bridgton Hospital, and plans to renovate the old Masonic Hall in Pondicherry Square for use as a microbrewery and pub.

FOURTH MOVE FOR FORMER PARSONAGE — Plans to move the Rufus Porter Museum’s 1789 Nathan Church parsonage from 67 North High Street to downtown Bridgton will mark the fourth move of the parsonage, which features restored murals done by teacher, painter and author Rufus Porter (1792-1884). (Geraghty photo)

Board Co-President Nelle Ely said she’s talked to Frank Howell, owner of the Magic Lantern, who told her he was excited that the museum planned to locate across the brook from his property. Perhaps a bridge could eventually be built to connect the two properties, so that museum visitors could easily access the picnic tables and café-style tables and chairs in front of the theatre building.

Board members said that in addition to providing easier accessibility for patrons, this move will enable the museum to remain open year round. Ever since its founding in 2005, the museum has looked for a more centrally located site, and once they became aware of the possibility they moved quickly to complete the purchase, bidding against a developer intent on creating several apartments in the house and adjoining additions. As the circa-1830 house is the oldest property remaining on Main Street, its preservation is important to the history of the town.

Plans are underway to design a structure attached to the houses for a gallery, classroom space, staff offices, research center, museum store, intern housing and to expand the exhibit on Rufus Porter’s achievements. Architectural students at Lake Region High School will be involved in the research and planning for this structure.

Rufus Porter (1792-1884), who spent his boyhood in the Bridgton area and later in Portland, was a lifelong teacher and a prolific painter of fresco landscape mural, portraits and miniatures. In his lifetime he was a music and dance teacher and built his first “camera obscura” in 1820. He went on to found and edit the 1845 American Mechanic journal in Boston, Mass. and also founded the Scientific American magazine in 1845. He was a holder of 100 patents including a revolving firle, and built a hot-air “airship” in 1833.

Donations and grants are needed to fund this ambitious project, along with many volunteers to support this effort. Historic preservationists from the state will be called in for research, and to guide the restoration process.
Because of the importance of Rufus Porter to the field of American Folk Art, and to the world of science as the founder of Scientific American magazine, the museum has gained national recognition, drawing visitors from throughout the country. Its popular summer Cultural Heritage Series of classes teaching the decorative arts draws many students for a week in July. More information can be learned from the website, www.rufusportermuseum.org

Anyone wishing to volunteer as part of this venture should contact the museum at 647-2828, or President Nelle Ely at 647-4411. A separate fund is being set up to accept donations to be applied to the house restoration.

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