Bangor couple renovates historic homes to improve neighborhood

Tom Bartlett and Linda Stearns have been renovating their 1835 house on Third Street in Bangor for about 12 years.
LINDA COAN O'KRESIK | BDN
Tom Bartlett and Linda Stearns have been renovating their 1835 house on Third Street in Bangor for about 12 years. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 24, 2012, at 2:42 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 24, 2012, at 4:32 p.m.
A photograph from the early 1900s of Linda Stearns and Tom Bartlett's 1835 house in Bangor.
LINDA COAN O'KRESIK | BDN
A photograph from the early 1900s of Linda Stearns and Tom Bartlett's 1835 house in Bangor. Buy Photo
Tom Bartlett works in one of the bedrooms of his 1835 home that he and his wife Linda Stearns are renovating on Feb. 22, 2012. He is tearing off the horsehair plaster and lath wall to check the wiring and the chimney inside. Tom will then use drywall to complete the room.
LINDA COAN O'KRESIK | BDN
Tom Bartlett works in one of the bedrooms of his 1835 home that he and his wife Linda Stearns are renovating on Feb. 22, 2012. He is tearing off the horsehair plaster and lath wall to check the wiring and the chimney inside. Tom will then use drywall to complete the room. Buy Photo
Tom Bartlett and Linda Stearns have been renovating their 1835 house on Third Street in Bangor for about 12 years. The builders signed and dated the house in 1835 on an upstairs plaster wall.
LINDA COAN O'KRESIK | BDN
Tom Bartlett and Linda Stearns have been renovating their 1835 house on Third Street in Bangor for about 12 years. The builders signed and dated the house in 1835 on an upstairs plaster wall. Buy Photo

On her daily two-mile walk through the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Bangor, Linda Stearns observes improvements in the city. She passes by parks and playgrounds, new boutiques and restaurants. And while usually she just walks for the exercise, sometimes she has an agenda — a concert, movie or play to attend.

She has grown to love the Queen City on the Penobscot River, but she also sees problems that need to be addressed — noisy traffic, litter, housing blight and crime-ridden areas.

“I’ve been here long enough to see how seedy the downtown became,” said Stearns, 69. “Growing up here as a child, I can remember what the city has gone through. Everyone will look at it a little different. But recently, it had been brought back up.”

Stearns believes the key to a thriving city is the sense of community felt in the neighborhoods.

Her walk begins on Third Street at her 1835 cedar-shingled home. The historic building represents nearly 200 years of Bangor residents. It also is the childhood home of her four children.

And renovating the home was her first contribution to the neighborhood.

“Tom [her husband] was saying, sometimes just a little thing that you change has a ripple effect,” she said.

Since purchasing the old duplex in 1983 with her then-husband Peter Taber, Stearns has given the building a complete face-lift.

“Money was limited, so we bought a wreck of a house. I’ve been working on it ever since,” she said, sitting on the living room sofa in front of a fired-up wood stove.

“I knew the cosmetic things I wanted to do — the cracked plaster and the falling ceiling.”

Right away, she opened up the interior by knocking down the dividing wall between the two apartments, painting the walls and woodwork with light colors and installing French doors.

But it took time, research and the help of professionals to chip away at the bigger problems born during the house’s long period of neglect.

The plumbing burst. The house needed central heating. Stearns moved the kitchen, added a downstairs bathroom and replaced all the windows.

“Someone who is buying an old house should know what they’re getting into. It’s more expensive to retrofit a house than to start from scratch, but you can do it, bit by bit,” she said.

Then came Thomas Bartlett, a handyman who has proved key to the house’s restoration. Stearns met him on a crowded Concord Trailways bus more than a decade ago, and they’ve been together ever since.

Two loans from the city helped them tackle a few projects — new siding and proper wall insulation. Today, the house not only looks charming to the passerby, it’s also homey on the inside and fairly energy efficient.

But their efforts count for nothing if the neighborhood deteriorates around them, if their driveway is blocked by careless motorists, trash clutters the sidewalk and nearby houses turn to shambles.

That’s why Stearns and Bartlett were two of the 90 concerned residents of Bangor who gathered for the Feb. 8 public meeting on neighborhood revitalization, an effort that is still in its preliminary stages. The group, much larger than Bangor City Council Chairman and Mayor Cary Weston originally anticipated, discussed a plan to increase safety, redevelop properties and improve infrastructure in the neighborhood and business areas that make up the Main Street corridor bordered by Main, Buck, Third and Union streets.

Neighbors spoke candidly about problems with abandoned buildings, crime, noise, dangerous traffic patterns and littering.

“People should say whatever they think needs to be done around here to make it a nicer place to life — a pretty place, a safe place, better than it has been in the past,” said Stearns, who encourages people to attend the second meeting scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Thursday, March 1, in the auditorium of James F. Doughty School.

In a letter she distributed throughout Bangor, she wrote, “The success and failures of this effort is to be a blueprint for how the city will tackle the problems in other areas of the city. We are fortunate to get the attention first.”

In addition to rehabilitating their own home, Stearns and Bartlett have renovated an L-shaped addition that was put on the back of their home in the early 1900s. It’s now a sun-filled apartment they rent to young professionals and students.

They also bought the simple, green 1920s house next door and rehabilitated it to be a beautiful and affordable home for an approved tenant, someone they feel secure living beside.

Stearns grew up in Hampden back when the rapidly growing town was more country than housing developments.

It took her a while to grow accustomed to city living.

Today, she takes advantage of the fact that she can walk downtown. She and Bartlett hold season tickets to Penobscot Theatre as well as attend classes at the senior center, summer movies and art walks.

“The creative economy has started growing the past few years and has made it more fun to live here,” said Stearns, who volunteers each year for the American Folk Festival.

A silk painter, she sells her artwork (LRS Designs) at Maine Jewelry & Art in downtown. She also works part-time bookkeeping for a local doctor and at Bangor International Airport as a passenger service agent and representative for World Airways.

Bartlett, 70 and also retired, has taken over most of the renovation projects. Originally from Baltimore, Md., he moved to Fryeburg as a teen and attended the University of Maine. For a long time, he ran a frame shop, and some of the skills he gained as a framer have helped him in fixing up the house. The rest he learns from books he borrows from the Bangor Public Library.

“Tom is much better at knowing what structural problems need fixing,” she said. “Old houses tend to lean and sag and let in drafts.”

If it’s so much trouble, why buy an old house?

On a practical level, it’s initially more affordable than a new house, but a house with history has character, hundreds of stories to tell.

Dated signatures discovered in the double plaster horsehair walls record the year of the Third Street house’s construction — 1835.

“I kept a lot of the original woodwork. A lot remains as it was built to be,” Stearns said.

Fireplaces, which at one time were the sole source of heat, remain in each room. Eventually, the wood heat was upgraded to a coal furnace, then oil. Most recently, Bartlett jumped on the first wave of Bangor residents to switch to natural gas.

Because it was a duplex, the building is symmetrical, each half mirroring the other. But upon closer investigation, there are differences in the woodwork and small interior details. The original inhabitants had different tastes.

While some people may say that old buildings are the very source of shabbiness in Bangor’s neighborhoods, Stearns and Bartlett have shown how history can be beautifully preserved.

And since nearly 100 people expressed interest at the first neighborhood revitalization meeting, these small things really do matter to residents of Bangor.

“I don’t know if it’s just time or if it’s the beauty of the waterfront that has inspired people to think differently about downtown,” Stearns said. “But that’s the real thing that will save a city — a sense of community in the neighborhoods.”

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