A lesson in preserving the past

Posted June 12, 2009, at 5:29 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — There are probably plenty of people in Bangor who remember the old Larkin Street School the way it used to be — pungent with the odor of chalk dust, echoing with the laughter of children and the wintry din of cranky steam radiators.

Those days are long gone. The substantial brick school, designed by the prolific Bangor architect Wilfred Mansur, opened in 1907 and closed in 1968. Beginning in 1969, it served as the warehouse and retail outlet of Brown & White Paper Co., which went out of business about a year ago.

Now, the school’s lofty tin ceilings, supersized windows, warm oak woodwork, slate chalkboards and other design features are being given new life at the hands of Bangor developer Bill Masters. Masters, who purchased the school building just after Brown & White moved out, has been working overtime to rehab the cavernous classrooms and other spaces into 10 unique, sunlit, one-bedroom apartments. He expects to have five of those apartments ready for occupancy by the beginning of July.

Masters has undertaken the restoration of several other Bangor landmarks, including the historic Sweets Building in West Market Square, which houses Paddy Murphy’s Pub on its street-level floor.

“I have an appreciation for a building standard that is no longer in use,” he said in a recent interview, taking a break from laying a new floor in the entryway of one of his new apartments. “This building will outlast anything that’s being built today.”

Architect and Bangor native Mansur designed at least seven of Bangor’s handsome public schools at a time when the city was at its most prosperous, populous and bustling. They include the Valentine School on Union Street, now in use as the Shaw House shelter for teens, and Saint Mary’s School on State Street, now All Saints School. Several other Mansur schools have lost the battle against time and urban renewal, including the Hannibal Hamlin School on Union Street, which was razed to build a shopping center, and an annex to the Bangor High School on Harlow Street, now the site of a paid parking lot.

Other Mansur buildings still standing include Wellman Commons, originally a gymnasium on the intown campus of Bangor Theological Seminary, the Penobscot County Courthouse, and the derelict home of the superintendent at the restored Bangor Waterworks on State Street.

“These structures” — Mansur’s and those of other architects — “are part of our built environment that gives character and beauty to the city,” said Danna Lippett of the Bangor Museum and History Center.

Old-timers still cringe, she said, at the memory of the razing in the 1960s of the city’s Union Station next to the Penobscot River and the old City Hall at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets. Fire has claimed many other fine old structures in Bangor, Lippett noted — notably the great fire of 1911 and much more re-cently, the 2004 blaze that destroyed the 1869 Masonic Hall on Main Street.

The loss of such architectural landmarks is enduring, she said.

The Larkin Street School looks to be in remarkably good shape for its age. Especially considering its recent industrial use, it boasts a remarkable inventory of original features. Its thick, brick exterior walls are straight and true. The ornamental tin ceilings of the first and second stories are level and sound. The graceful twin stair-ways still have most of their sturdy oak treads.

In the long-unused boys restroom, way down in the musty cellar, a 12-foot span of inch-thick slate urinal stalls boasts a brass insignia plate from the Monson Maine Slate Co.

Masters hasn’t figured out what to do with the wall of urinals, yet. But, he said, the process of uncovering, preserving and finding new uses for such features is an ongoing source of personal satisfaction.

“There is a delight in knowing I have reused something old instead of just throwing it away,” he said. When he dismantled a Brown & White-era conveyer belt and found a walled-in stairway, intact and usable, to the second floor, he was struck anew with the abiding beauty and craftsmanship of the entire structure.

But rehabbing an old building, even one in as good condition as the Larkin Street School, is a challenge. In addition to the hard work and expense of the project, Masters said he gets frustrated dealing with city officials bent on enforcing fire codes and other safety regulations.

“You shouldn’t need to apply new building codes to old buildings,” he said.

City Fire Inspector John Mickel agrees that the process can be daunting. He said bringing some of Bangor’s “grand old edifices” into full compliance with safety codes can be economically and aesthetically unfeasible. In some cases, he said, there may be ways to satisfy safety concerns adequately without meeting the specifics of the codes.

In other instances, he said, people will have a “pipe dream” about rehabbing an old building but just can’t pull it off.

“It usually comes down to money,” he said. “Our big old beautiful buildings are wonderful. The problem is that remodeling them costs more than building new.”

“Part of what I’m trying to do here is prove that it’s possible to create affordable housing in the downtown,” Masters said. He is confident his “new” apartment building will meet all city safety codes by the time he’s ready to rent. His one-of-a-kind units will run from $650 to $750 a month, and he already has a few interested tenants lined up.

While plenty of apartments are available in Bangor, he said, there is a shortage of “decent and affordable” housing for singles and couples. The Larkin Street School’s edge-of-town location — near the civic center, the new casino and a neighborhood bar — make it an important cornerstone of the city’s downtown revitalization, Masters said.

“Every time we tear down a building like this, we lose something both tangible and ethereal,” Masters said. “It makes a statement that we think the efforts of a bygone era are insignificant, that we can do better. A couple of generations from now, people may feel our time here was just as insignificant.”

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