BANGOR, Maine — In November 2005, a Veazie couple donated a piece of downtown real estate to the Bangor Museum and Center for History. The four-story former Merchants Bank Building — shaped like a big piece of pie with the crust facing Broad Street and West Market Square — was to become the museum’s fancy new home.
More than four years later, nearly $3 million has been raised and spent to renovate the space so that the museum might finally be able to move from its cramped quarters on State Street.
Michael Aube, the new president of the museum’s board of directors, said Friday, however, that the donated building needs significantly more work than originally anticipated and that the museum may have to abandon that space altogether.
“We’re no longer committed to that building,” Aube said. “I would say things are on hold. In hibernation.”
So, what happened?
Russ Harrington, former president of the museum’s board, said the building simply presented unanticipated structural and architectural challenges, including for security measures and updates to the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system. He estimated that it would cost another $3 million to bring the facility up to the museum’s standards.
“Once it got torn apart, everything came to light,” Harrington said. “We relied on multiple studies. We really did due diligence, but it turns out there were so many unknowns with the building.”
The building has a new roof, new windows, reinforced steel beams and a sign on the door that reads “Future home of the Bangor Museum,” but Aube said it very well may never become the museum’s future home.
Bill Arata, who had owned the building since 1983 with his wife, Sally, was reluctant to talk about the recent revelations, but he said the donation was made and accepted in good faith.
“I don’t want it back, and I don’t expect it back,” he said. “I trust the museum and its board to make the decision that best suits its needs. There are no sour grapes; some sad grapes perhaps.”
Then-board president Jean Deighan announced the Aratas’ generous building donation in late 2005 with grand plans to move the museum’s many artifacts. Among the more prized pieces are an exact replica of the Declaration of Independence (one of only about 30 in existence); a sword that belonged to Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain; more than 10,000 individual photographs that detail Bangor’s history; and hundreds of garments dating from the mid-19th century.
For a few years, the current museum was located in a small temporary space at 6 State St., the former Eastern Trust Building. Now everything is kept at the Thomas Hill House on High Street, which also is managed by the museum, and the facility is open from June through September and by appointment.
The former Merchants Bank Building was built in 1835 as part of the old Circular Block, designed by architect George Pickering, for whom the nearby square is named. It has survived two fires, including the Great Fire of 1911, and has been renovated numerous times over the last several years.
The Aratas bought the building in the early 1980s and leased it to various tenants through the years, including Cormier’s, a men’s clothing retailer. It has been empty since 2000. Bill Arata came up with the idea of donating the building after serving on the museum’s board of directors.
Harrington said the gift was generous, but it proved to be a costly blessing.
When the museum board realized the renovations would need another $3 million, another fundraising campaign was discussed but not pursued.
“When the economy tanked, we wondered, ‘Do we go back out with another campaign in this economy?’” Harrington said. “We felt like it was the wrong time because it had no way of being successful. So we put it on hold.”
Richard Stone, chairman of the Bangor City Council and a recent appointee to the museum board, said even if money were raised to finish the renovations to the donated building, there are other costs.
“Even if a big pot of gold fell from the sky, we couldn’t pay to operate it,” he said. “I suspect that in the next several weeks, we’ll make a decision to perhaps sell it and see what happens.”
Whether there is any buyer in the market for an old building that still needs an estimated $3 million in renovations remains to be seen.
Aube said he and other board members have started reaching out to donors to let them know what is likely to happen with the donated building. Harrington said the museum’s many donors have been generous and patient throughout the process.
According to financial records obtained through the Web site Guidestar, the Bangor Museum and Center for History began raising large sums beginning in 2005. The nonprofit agency’s net assets at the end of the 2007 year, according to the most recent tax forms available, totaled more than $2.3 million. Harrington said most of that has been spent on renovations.
The museum employs a full-time curator, Dana Lippett, and an acting executive director, Diane Kopec. Neither could be reached for comment Friday. Other expenses include heating and other utility costs, but for the most part, the museum’s operational budget is lean.
As for the next step, Aube said the museum board is creating a strategic plan, something that probably should have been done years ago.
“I think we have to balance dreams and ideas with operational reality,” he said.
More information about the Bangor Museum and Center for History is available on its Web site, www.bangormuseum.com.