ORONO, Maine — When an excavator’s grapple peeled part of the roof off the old Webster Mill on Monday evening, the crowd that had gathered to watch the demolition of the more than 130-year-old building let out a cheer.
The cheers grew louder when the grapple came down on the wall, sending a cluster of red bricks crashing to the ground and a plume of dust into the air.
Dozens turned out to celebrate the end of the old mill and the beginning of its future as a high-end 24-unit condominium complex called Webster Point. The project’s developers, brokers and town officials organized a community barbecue and live music at Webster Park before the demolition at the former mill site.
So many people turned out that organizers ran out of food about 40 minutes into the barbecue.
“I guess if you put ‘barbecue’ and ‘demolition’ in the same sentence a lot of people show up,” said Town Planner Evan Richert.
The town and development group Developers Collaborative originally hoped to restore the historic building.
“The idea of saving that building and these vestiges of the past was very appealing,” said Richert as he watched the grapple knock another section of bricks to the ground, exposing trees that were growing inside the building. “It was just too far gone.”
The mill opened around 1875, when Eben C. Webster and his brother J. Frederick Webster built the E & J.F. Webster Saw Mill on a point of land that juts out into the confluence of the Penobscot and Stillwater rivers, according to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
The mill burned in 1892, but the brothers rebuilt the Webster Paper Co. Mill later that year on the same site.
The company was absorbed by International Paper Co. in 1898 and started producing newspaper. In the 1930s, the mill switched to making wall paper. In the 1940s, World War II forced the mill to switch its focus to casting steel parts for 90 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, according to records.
A few years after the war ended, Nelson and Small Co. moved into the northern portion of the building, which it used as a warehouse for washers, dryers, refrigerators and other appliances.
In 1972, Striar Woolen Mill bought the property and used the facility to recycle manufactured wool garments until 1993 when the company went out of business.
The building has been vacant and falling deeper and deeper into disrepair ever since.
Town officials and law enforcement have called the once-vibrant mill building an eyesore and a safety hazard. Part of the roof had collapsed and the rest was unstable. The wood rotted and trees grew up through the foundation.
The Town Council voted earlier this month to allow the site’s developers to tear down the building before the town signs over the lease to Developers Collaborative at the end of the year.
The bricks from the old mill will be pulverized and used to fill the hole left by the foundation of the mill. The metal will be recycled and some of the wood will be salvaged. Around 90 percent of what made up the Webster Mill will be recycled or reused in some way, according to Kevin Bunker, founder of Developers Collaborative.
The granite window sills from the mill will be repurposed for decoration or landscaping at the new condominiums, he said
Construction on the four-story condominium complex is expected to begin in the spring of 2012 and should take about seven months to complete, Bunker said.
According to Pauline Rock, an ERA Dawson-Bradford broker who is selling the units, 10 of the 24 condos already have sold.
Barbara Steller of Old Town was one of the first people to reserve a unit at Webster Point, she said during the barbecue.
“This is right up my alley,” said Steller, who was Dirigo Pines’ first executive director and has a pond named after her at the retirement community. “No more mowing, no more plowing.”
She said the view of the two rivers and the proximity to Orono’s downtown drew her to the future development.
The demolition is expected to take about six weeks.
For Bunker, the destruction was bittersweet. While he said the condominium would be unlike anything in the area and provide an economic boost for Orono, it’s also the end of a historic building that he once hoped would stay standing.
“It’s strange,” said Bunker. “You spend all that time and energy figuring out how to save it all, and here it is coming down.”