December 29, 2010

Gannett House may become First Amendment museum

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The family of Maine publisher Guy Gannett wants to turn his Mediterranean Revival house in Augusta into an interactive First Amendment museum focused on appealing to students and adults.

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The family of Maine publisher Guy Gannett wants to turn his house in Augusta into an interactive First Amendment museum focused on appealing to students and adults.As currently envisioned by the family, the museum would promote understanding of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as chronicle the work of the Guy Gannett family in Maine’s media industry.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

The house — on State Street next to the Blaine House, within walking distance of the State House — recently was vacated when the State Planning Office moved down the street.

It features 5,000 square feet of usable area and has a carriage house in back in good condition, according to an assessment of the property recently completed by Lachman Architects & Planners of Portland.

On Tuesday, members of the Gannett House Working Group met briefly to talk about the future of the building.

Genie Gannett, granddaughter of Guy Gannett, said she got involved with a state facilities planning group about 10 years ago because of her interest in the old family home.

Now that the building is vacant, she said, she and her family are prepared to fund a museum that teaches about the First Amendment, with a particular focus on freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

“I had conversations with my family and said you know, ‘The building might actually get vacated. What do you think?’” she said. “My mother in particular was anxious to see something appropriate happen.”

As currently envisioned by the family, the museum would promote understanding of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as chronicle the work of the Guy Gannett family in Maine’s media industry.

A vision statement on a brochure provided by the family states:

“The Gannett House Project will keep current its interactive exhibits concerning city, state and national issues. We will create and maintain an ongoing digital library of the state’s newspapers, past and present. The Gannett House Project will further connect the story of one Maine family’s contribution to a national ideal; a free press as watchdog, the guardian of democracy.”

The brochure describes interactive exhibits for students such as learning about becoming a television reporter and comparing today’s rap music to protest songs of the 1960s to highlight issues of free speech. Possible exhibits also include discussions about bloggers and their rights and responsibilities.

Also, the family has proposed lecture programs, workshops and seminars, and outreach programs to “tell the stories of citizens who have stood up for freedom.”

The museum would be located the house, which was a wedding gift from William H. Gannett to his son, Guy.

Built in 1911, it was described as Augusta’s most progressive home because of its unique architecture and “numerous mechanical conveniences,” according to the National Register of Historic Places.

Guy Gannett and his family lived in the home for about 10 years before moving to Portland when his publishing company purchased the Portland Press Herald. The home was privately owned for several years until the state acquired it in 1973 and turned it into office space.

William Gannett, born in Augusta, was a successful entrepreneur who sold patent medicine and founded Comfort magazine, which once had a circulation of more than 1 million copies.

He and his son, Guy, founded The Gannett Publishing Co., which first bought the Waterville Sentinel, followed by the Portland Press Herald, The Portland (Maine) Sunday Telegram, The Portland Evening Express and The Daily Kennebec Journal.

They later expanded to broadcast media, including WGAN radio and WGME television. Guy’s daughter, Jean, continued to expand the company until she died in 1994. It was sold in 1998.

From the state’s perspective, the family’s First Amendment museum idea has several advantages, said State Historian Earle Shettleworth.

Because of its proximity to the governor’s mansion — only a fence separates the two properties — the state wants to continue to own the home for security reasons, he said.

It’s also historically and architecturally significant, and can be considered the gateway to the complex of buildings that often draw visitors, including the Blaine House, State House, state museum and archives.

“This use allows the state to retain ownership but to free itself of the fiscal responsibility of maintaining the house,” he said.

At this point, Chip Gavin, director of the Bureau of General Services, is writing a report on the idea, which will be considered next month by the Capitol Planning Commission.

From there, it would be forwarded to the new administration and the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee for consideration.

“I think it’s very exciting,” Shettleworth said. “The First Amendment is the essence of our democratic system at all levels of government.”

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