BELFAST, Maine — Last December, Seth Thayer and Greg Tinder gave each other wedding rings, in a small marriage ceremony held outside their Northport home on the first day that it was legal in Maine for same-sex couples to wed.
“I was elated,” Thayer said Tuesday morning. “We were so excited to do it. We wanted to do it the first day.”
They also gave each other a wedding present that is a little out of the ordinary — a large, dilapidated building, located in Belfast’s ‘slum and blight’ zone. The four-story structure with a big attached barn was built soon after the fire of 1865 and served first as a hotel and later as the Belfast Farmer’s Union building. More recently, the storefront facing lower Main Street has been home to such diverse retail shops as Roots & Tendrils and currently, the Eclectic Closet. Though structure needs a lot of work, Thayer and Tinder figure that they’re up to this major project, which began in January.
Purchasing the building with the goal of renovating it to include a loft-style two-story apartment and more retail space in the basement level is a symbol of their love for each other, and also of their love for the city of Belfast. They’ve lived in the area for 13 years and have found the same small town friendly feel here that Thayer remembers from his childhood in Oyster Bay, New York. And when Mainers voted last November to legalize gay marriage, it just solidified their positive feelings about the midcoast region.
“Belfast is our town,” Thayer said. “It feels good to invest in our communities.”
City planner Wayne Marshall said the couple’s renovation efforts are welcomed by Belfast, too.
“I think it’s great that they’ve chosen to purchase the property and to redevelop [it], to get as much use as possible out of the existing building,” he said. “It’s great that they’re putting the investment in to make that happen.”
Tinder said that they have a proven track record for this kind of work. Though both have different day jobs — Thayer is an expert in 18th century American furniture and art, and Tinder creates custom fur coats — they also have renovated two buildings in the Northport village of Bayside and rent them out in the summers. Something about the Belfast building caught their eye as a worthwhile project, though on a much bigger scale than the other houses they had renovated.
“We’ll be doing a lot of it ourselves and getting small business people to do the rest,” Thayer said. “We’ll come out with a really good product.”
So far, they’ve ripped apart concrete in the basement level with pry bars, pickaxes and sheer muscle, documenting these efforts on a blog. They’ve gutted the small apartment above the store and pulled out all kinds of material from the rest of the building, including layers and layers of wallpaper, old rats’ nests, cardboard used as insulation and more.
“We took out 10 tons of debris,” Tinder said. “Plaster, junk and garbage — five dumpsters full.”
Some of what they discovered in the building they have kept in a bushel basket, which has a strange and dusty assortment of a century and a half’s worth of living: a black shoe, old granary invoices from the Farmers Union, samples of the wallpaper, a jar of Shinola shoe polish, juice glasses, an egg beater, a 1920s hypodermic needle, a copy of “Intimate” magazine from the mid-1900s and some old erotic art.
“We pulled down a ceiling and it rained a kitchen down on me,” Thayer said.
Recently, they had some hard news from their structural engineer about the building, which they’ve cheerfully dubbed “Slum and Blight.” The two-story barn is going to have to come down, as getting the structure up to code would have basically meant rebuilding it from the ground up. They will save and recycle what they can, including a wall made of different sized and colored pieces of wood.
“It kills us,” Tinder said of the decision to take down the barn.
But on the positive side, Thayer said that without the barn, the project will largely be completed in a year instead of the five years they had figured on.
“It doesn’t look like we’ve done anything,” Tinder said. “But we’ve come along leaps and bounds.”
They said that working side by side each day in the Belfast building is something that unites them as a couple.
“I think it definitely makes the relationship stronger,” Tinder said, adding that they each bring something different to the table when it comes to the building renovation.
“I’m a big picture guy, and Greg is the details guy,” Thayer said.
And while they’re enjoying the work, they’re also looking forward to its completion.
“We can’t wait to see what it looks like,” Thayer said. “We’ve gotten a lot of ideas from friends and professional people.”
When asked how much money the project will cost, they didn’t want to give a specific figure but did say that they are saving by doing much of the grunt work.
“We’re not going crazy,” Thayer said. “We don’t have a lot of money, which is why we’re digging out the basement ourselves.”