Transforming Keen Hall

Former headmaster's house to take on new life as community center
By Fran Gonzalez | Sep 30, 2019
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez The Keen family home, shown here Sept. 13, with its original foundation removed. The Freedom Community Historical Society is transforming the building into a community hall with a rental studio apartment on the second floor.

Freedom — The former Keen family home, situated at the intersection of Main Street and Route 137, is evolving.

Freedom Community Historical Society is transforming the 165-year-old "house on a hill" into a village cultural center with a proposed office, library, archives, exhibit space and community meeting space. Plans also call for a revenue-generating studio rental apartment on the second floor.

Outside, the grounds will be landscaped, with areas for children to play, and lawn furniture will encourage visiting and relaxing, with a view looking across Main Street toward Sandy Stream.

According to a consulted preservation architect, "This practical adaptation has the potential to provide the Freedom Historical Society with rental income and be an anchor to help spur development of Main Street."

In the first stages of the restoration process, the house was lifted and contractors have been removing the old crumbling foundation. Workers will pour a new foundation and install a septic system.

The house was home to Carter B. Keen, who attended Freedom Academy and practiced law in Washington, D.C. President Grover Cleveland, late in his second term, appointed Keen to set up a savings and loan program that helped immigrant families secure loans, something they previously were unable to do through standard banks. In the 1910s, Keen became director of the Postal Savings System, a part of the U.S. Postal Service.

Myrick Cross is a retired Episcopal priest, teacher, administrator and former chairman of the Regional School Unit 3 Board of Directors. He is also president of the Freedom Community Historical Society, the group spearheading the "Keen Hall" restoration.

Around 1927, the Keen family gave the house to Freedom Academy as a place for headmasters to reside. According to Cross, the house has seen 40 years' worth of headmasters since then.

"It is the last remaining building having to do with Freedom Academy," he said.

The first Freedom Academy was built around 1837. Cross said it was one of the first secondary schools in the area, located next to the Freedom Congregational Church on Pleasant Street. The school was destroyed by fire in 1947 and a second Freedom Academy was built in 1948.

A decade later, the new academy also burned down. According to Freedom Community Historical archives, at that time, Freedom's first fire trucks were housed in the academy's basement.

Following destruction of the second academy, Freedom students went to school in Unity and shared the buildings of Unity High School. A year later, it became Unity-Freedom High School for six years. Today, successor Mount View High School serves Unity, Freedom and nine other towns.

According to Cross, Charlie Cosgrove was headmaster then. He was the last headmaster to live at the Keen house, staying until the mid 1960s.

Contractors started work on Keen Hall the week of Sept. 9. At present, the entire house is jacked up, perching precariously on wooden cribbing atop the hill overlooking Main Street.

The building made Maine Preservation's 2015 list as one of "10 Most Endangered Historic Places" in the state, which, according to Cross, "helped get grants with that distinction."

The National Register of Historic Places also listed Keen Hall on June 26, 2017. It was the second building in Freedom to achieve this recognition, the first being the restored grist mill known as Mill at Freedom Falls.

Many people have contributed services to the project, Cross said, including Architect Chris Glass, who drew up all the plans for free, and landscape architect Stephen Mohr and Frick Engineering. Mill owner Tony Grassi, helped with contacts he knew. "He's been wonderful," Cross said. "He's helped us financially, too."

Historical society secretary Kate Flynn and her husband and treasurer, Paul Flynn, have also helped out a great deal, he said.

Initially, Cross said, the historical society considered tearing down the attached garage, which faces Route 137, but the register was interested in keeping the house intact to preserve the historic nature as it existed during its life as the principal’s house.

Although that section presented jacking challenges, in the end, Cross said, there will be more usable space.

From 1974 to 1987 the house served as offices for The Farmstead Press, a local magazine devoted to agriculture, and a precursor to Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association publications.

The house then changed hands several times through a series of private owners, Cross said, who let the property go. The house was taken by the town when taxes were not paid about six years ago. That is when, Cross said, he thought the town would tear the house down.

"I couldn't see it torn down," he said. Cross, who lives across from where Freedom Academy once stood, has a strong connection with the school.

"A friend once told me that if the town offered to give it to me, don't take it," he said.

"So against my better judgment, the Freedom Community Historical Society decided to buy it," Cross said. At that time, the town asked $4,500 for the house, the total tax amount due from the previous owner. The society presented the only bid for the abandoned building and raised the money from local contributions and a small initial grant.

Wondering now what do we do with it, Cross started writing grant applications. He applied for 15 grants and wound up receiving five, totaling $15,000.

"At that point we had contractors look at the building, but their quotes were more than we had, so the house sat for two years," he said.

The Waldo County Reentry Center crew helped clean up the basement and the historical society had a yard sale with items rescued from the house. Cross said they saved anything worth saving and stored it at the Old Town Meeting House on North Palermo Road.

The historical society also held several fundraisers, including the Freedom Follies, the Freedom Winter Festival and the Freedom Academy Alumni Association annual appeal and membership drive, tapping people who attended the former school. Still, the society did not have enough money or people to keep the project going, Cross said.

It was not until the society came across a local contractor, Brendan Suitor, that the project was set back into motion.

Suitor told Cross of another contractor, Jonathan Wilbur of Corinth, who he thought would be interested in the job.

Glenn Couturier of Halldale Builders in Montville had previously volunteered to do consulting work for the historical society, and he spoke with Wilbur, convincing him to take on the project.

"(Wilbur) is a small enough contractor that he cares about our project," Cross said.

The new foundation will have 8-foot walls and the garage will be on a slab. Other renovations planned include new windows, clapboards, insulation and landscaping.

"We are just beginning to start on the building," Cross said. "I have to write more grants. Hopefully one of the foundations will give us a Christmas present.

"It's such a visual spot," he said. "It's going to be beautiful and a welcoming sign to the town. It's more than just saving an old building, but about pride in the town when most of the economy has left; it is a turning point. It's very exciting."

Tax-deductible contributions can be made to Freedom Community Historical Society, P.O. Box 52, Freedom, ME 04941. For more information about this effort, contact Myrick Cross at myrickcross@gmail.com or call 513-722-6249.

The yellow house on the hill at the intersection of Main Street and Route 137 in Freedom, known as Keen Hall, is undergoing restoration and is slated to become a community center. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
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