Fix-up finishes made to historic Knox Hotel Apartments

Posted July 26, 2011, at 6:48 p.m.

THOMASTON, Maine — Janet Benner, 70, of Thomaston has lived in the Knox Hotel for 26 years now. So you can imagine when some workmen came in to remove her old appliances, she got defensive.

“My fridge and stove were beautiful. They didn’t have to take them,” Benner said. Though when pressed, she agreed that her new stove and refrigerator work pretty well, too.

Benner’s home, the Knox Hotel, which was built in 1915, recently got a complete makeover. The building’s owner, local politicians and hotel residents gathered Tuesday for a small celebration to recognize the renovations in the historic space.

Benner is one of about 30 residents who live in Knox Hotel Apartments, which offers affordable housing to elderly people. The 31,516-square-foot building also is the home of a branch of Camden National Bank. Before the 1970s, the building always had housed a hotel.

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“Then [in the 1970s], summer people started buying cottages and stopped staying in beautiful old hotels,” said Lee-Ann Upham, who has been on the Thomaston Board of Selectmen for 19 years. “It hit a critical point in the late 1970s. [Building owner] David [Twombly] came at the right time — like a white knight — and created affordable living space. Thomaston is very grateful.”

Twombly had heard in the 1970s that the old hotel was about to be torn down, so he bought it. He was spending some time in Maine working as a city planner in Portland around the time he bought the building. Now he renovates historic buildings for a living, taking advantage of the U.S. government tax credits for people who do this sort of work.

Maine also has those credits. Plus, Maine gives benefits to people who create affordable housing. Adding up all of the tax rebates, Twombly will get more than 45 cents back for every dollar he invested into the old hotel.

It took 30 years before anything was done to the building, but Twombly got to work last November and is adding the finishing touches to the building this month.

“It has major problems with water infiltration and heat loss,” Twombly said of the building. “This project was in trouble. We had a lot of work and not a lot of money to begin with.”

The federal and state tax incentives helped.

“I’m considering doing another project in Thomaston right now. What allows me to do it is Maine’s state historic tax credit,” Twombly said Tuesday, as he stood near his building’s front porch.

Earle Shettleworth, director of Maine Historic Preservation Commission, called the Maine tax credit “an economic engine of great significance.”

“It’s a credit that really works and makes things happen in old downtowns,” Shettleworth said Tuesday. “This building has graced Main Street for more than a century.”

The hotel was built in 1820, but burned to the ground. Someone rebuilt the hotel in 1915, and the tan-colored hotel looks the same now as it did then. The first floor has large windows in the front that rise up to meet a second-floor porch with detailed railings. Two more floors embellished with great columns hold up a roof detailed with overhanging dentil molding.

The hotel is one of three buildings on the eastern side of Main Street, which is a historic business district.

In it lives 82-year-old Emma Thibodeau. When her husband of 63 years died in 2006, she moved from her longtime home in Rumford to Thomaston, which is closer to her children and grandchildren.

When Twombly started refurbishing his building, Thibodeau and her friends who live on her floor were moved to another apartment in the county for two months while workers cleaned up her bathroom, remade her windows and gave her a new kitchen. Other residents had to move for as long as five months while the building was being renovated.

“I’ve moved a few times in my life; it didn’t bother me,” she said. It did bother many of the other residents, which Twombly apologized for on Tuesday to a group of elderly residents.

Thibodeau lives on the fourth floor of the apartment building. The long hallway from the elevator to her room used to be damp and rotting. Now it’s bright, clean and painted yellow with new blue-green carpeting.

Her one-bedroom apartment had old, cheap cupboards, she said. Now she has nice, brighter ones. Workers also moved her windows and widened them to let in more light. Now she has a view of the new gardens Twombly installed outside.

“It’s so pretty up here. It’s all new.”

The workers even cleaned her bathroom.

“Yes. They scrubbed it up for me,” she said as she stood on the new bathroom tiles.

Plus, she said, the new sprinklers throughout the building and the eradication of all the mold and asbestos helped her and her floormates.

“It made us feel safer,” she said. “When everyone saw [the refurbished building], the atmosphere changed. We like the history.”

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