One of Old Town’s oldest homes falls victim to rezoning
OLD TOWN, Maine — For more than a century, an old white mansion sat peacefully along Bennoch Road in Old Town, a historic testament to one local man’s role in the Civil War.
Often called the Jameson homestead, the house was built sometime between 1830 and 1840 and was said to have belonged to former Civil War Gen. Charles Davis Jameson. For generations, only a few families were fortunate enough to reside in the home.
For those who lived there and local history buffs, the house was a landmark of Jameson’s legacy. In December, it was torn down as a victim of rezoning — and with it, a symbol of Old Town’s history in the Civil War vanished.
Jameson was born in Gorham in 1827 but later moved to Old Town, according to a biography. Former residents of the house said that the Jameson family were lumber barons and Jameson himself was involved in state politics before joining the war.
In the early 1860s, he was nominated as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate but ultimately lost and when war broke out in the South, Jameson volunteered to serve. He moved up the ranks, eventually earning the title of general, and led his regiment in many conflicts, including the first Battle of Bull Run at Manassas.
Jameson also fought in both the 7 Days’ Battle of Richmond and the Battle of Fair Oaks, where he was wounded and later contracted typhoid fever in a hospital camp, according to a history collected by former owners of the Jameson house.
He was sent back home to Old Town, where he died on Nov. 6, 1862, at 35 years old. After his death, Jameson was buried at Riverside Cemetery on Bennoch Road in Orono.
As the Jameson homestead was passed down through a handful of families in the Stillwater area over the years, it remained an important piece of history for some residents.
One such inhabitant was Greenbush native Georgeia Burke, who lived in the house with her family from 1950 to 1962, although her parents retained ownership for many years after.
For the more than 50 years that her parents George and Catherine Pearson owned the house, it was a part of their own family history. The Pearsons had an infatuation with the place, Georgeia explained.
To Georgeia and her husband, Brian, the Jameson house was both an historic site and an important family gathering place.
The young couple even married in the living room in the 1970s.
“We spent every Christmas there, all the holidays … It was really a special place. I don’t think anyone could ever duplicate [it],” Brian said.
The Burkes recalled the elegant marble and soapstone fireplaces in every room, the crown molding with designs of grape leaves carved into the wood, the heavy wooden doors and window panes with flowers etched onto the glass.
“It was just an absolutely spectacular house,” Brian said.
While living in an apartment in Old Town, the Burkes saved up enough money until they could buy the house themselves and they never wanted to leave. When her parents died, she and Brian took over caring for the house.
As years weathered the house, it became more difficult for the family to maintain. Unable to keep pouring money into it, the family sold the house to someone who eventually demolished it — and Georgeia was heartbroken.
The Burkes made a home in Orland over the years, but still maintained the Jameson house from afar, hoping one day to pass it on to another family who would cherish its unique history. After it had been years on the real estate market, they found a couple who wanted to fix up the house and move into it.
But the sale soon ran into trouble. Under a municipal ordinance, the city considered the home “abandoned,” since the Burkes had moved out and it sat vacant for more than a year. In 2009, the surrounding neighborhood changed from a residential zone to a commercial one, which meant the Burkes could no longer sell the house as a family residence.
After a lengthy battle, they got approval from the city to sell it as a home but by then it was too late — the family who wanted to buy it had already walked, Georgeia said. They later sold it to another buyer and by mid-December 2019, the house was gone.
In 2016, the Jameson house deed was transferred to its new owner — Thomas Shanos of Penobscot Rentals, LLC. Shanos is a well-known local restaurateur who also co-owns High Tide Restaurant and Kosta’s Restaurant and Bar in Brewer. Last November, a fire largely damaged Shanos’ developments on an upcoming barbecue place named Whiskey River Smokehouse.
Shanos couldn’t be reached after multiple attempts for a comment. It’s not clear what he intends to do with the Old Town lot.
The purchase and later demolition of the Jameson house seemed to come as a shock to some residents who’d grown fond of the building.
“It really is unfortunate that yet another building of major historical significance was razed with no advance notice or outside input that I am aware of. Clearly, we cannot save every old building, or even every structure of obvious historical significance,” said Eisso Atzema, president of the Old Town Museum.
“However, there is not even a general sense of what older buildings there are in town, what their historical significance might be, and how they might be put to good use today.”
Changing that could help save local historic homes in the future, Atzema explained.
Conversely, some nearby municipalities have started initiatives to do exactly that. In Brewer, homeowners can apply to have their properties listed as a historic place on the city’s own historical database.
Some years ago, Bangor passed a Historic Preservation Commission to preserve local sites with historical or architectural significance.
“It is our hope that the destruction of the Jameson-Burke House will bring the City and other stakeholders together to develop a plan to formally inventory and assess the architectural reminders of Old Town’s storied past. The Museum is certainly willing to play a part in this much-needed process,” Atzema said.
“People must be in shock because that house has been there forever,” Brian Burke said. “Old Town doesn’t realize it but they lost a very valuable asset to the city.”