The shell of a lumber baron’s coastal mansion overlooks Fort Williams Park and Portland Head Light
The Goddard Mansion is a stone mansion (well, it’s just ruins now) on the grounds of Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. It was built in 1858 for Orono lumber baron/Civil War Colonel John Goddard. In 1900, it became part of Fort Williams when the U.S. Army expanded their operations at Portland Head. After the Army closed Fort Williams in 1962, the mansion fell into disrepair and was intentionally burned in 1981 due to safety concerns. All that remains today is the stone shell.
Construction for a Lumber Baron
In 1853, John Goddard purchased the Cape Cottage Hotel and surrounding land for $12,000 with the intention of building his dream home on the coast. Goddard had made his fortune in the lumber industry around Orono. He hired Maine’s leading architect Charles A. Alexander to design an Italianate home using local stone. In 1858, the Goddard family moved in to their fancy new home. The house was positioned on a hill and afforded views of Casco Bay and the always photogenic Portland Head Light.
Not much is known about the home for the next 30 years or so. Goddard served briefly in the Civil War as a Colonel in the 1st Maine Cavalry, but clearly his patriotism only ran so deep as he quickly abdicated his position to attend to his “suffering” businesses. The architect Alexander died in 1870, the Cape Cottage Hotel burned in 1894, and Goddard sold the home to Maine Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Symonds in 1898.
The Mansion joins the Army
In 1873, the Army purchased 14 acres near Portland Head Light and built fortifications and installed guns to support nearby Fort Preble. In 1899, it was formally named Fort Williams and started expanding. The Army purchased an additional 75 acres including the Goddard Mansion.
Fort Williams was fully manned for both World Wars and operated well into the Cold War. The Mansion was used as quarters for married, noncommissioned officers and their families while the basement was used as an officers’ club.
Crash, Burn, and Neglect
After the 2nd World War ended, coastal defenses were drawn down. Fort Williams transitioned to providing general support to the military and its guns were removed. It became a radar site in the 1950s and then was used for training for the National Guard.
In the early 1960s, the NCO Club opened its doors on Sunday to the public and hosted live music. While the rest of the state was not allowed to buy or serve alcohol on Sundays, the NCO Club was able to freely sell alcohol and became a popular spot.
The Army eventually closed Fort Williams in 1962 and the town of Cape Elizabeth bought the entire property. Many of the Fort’s buildings were torn down and the gun batteries were backfilled. The mansion, which was already in bad shape, declined further. After some small fires and occasional vandalism made it even less stable, the town was forced to decide whether to stabilize the mansion or abandon it. Once they got the estimates for repair work, the town manager recommended that it be razed. After some public outcry, they compromised in an odd way. Instead of fixing or completely destroying it, in 1981 they got the Cape Elizabeth Fire Department to perform a series of controlled burns of the interior to remove the roof and all wood. Then they filled in the basement and left the stone shell as it stands today and it was open to the public.
In 2009, the Fort Williams Advisory Committee, worried about the stability of the remaining structure, made the long term recommendation to reduce the height of the walls to a seating or first-floor windowsill height and to cap them to help deter further deterioration. They also determined that the main front entrance could potentially be saved with a bracing system. As for the interior, they recommended that the ground be graded, loamed and seeded for public access and easy maintenance. They would also install interpretive panels to display the history of the mansion. Funds were not available so they simply installed the ugly chain link fence around the ruins that you can see today.
What’s Left Today
These days, the roofless stone frame stands facing the elements. It is an eerily pretty spot and some couples actually have weddings on the grounds. If you are visiting the lighthouse or Fort Williams Park, it’s worth the short walk up the hill to get a glimpse of coastal history.