By Brian Swartz
Weekly Staff Editor
If federal tax credits and House Revivers had been available during Bangor’s urban renewal frenzy, at least a few architecturally significant buildings might still exist downtown.
Bob and Suzanne Kelly own House Rivers and Kelly Realty Management, the former a Bangor-based company that rehabilitates historic buildings. The Kellys have restored several Bangor buildings since 1990.
Federal tax credits made those projects possible.
“I just like old buildings. They’re what make a community unique,” Bob explained his passion for restoring historic structures. “I don’t like to see old buildings go to waste.”
Historic preservation — “rehabilitation” might be a better term — “helps preserve a town’s architectural history,” he said.
The first House Revivers’ project involved moving the 1835 Charles W. Jenkins House from York Street to a large lot at 67 Pine St. “It was one of the last Gothic Revival houses in Bangor,” Bob recalled.
Congregation Beth Israel, which owned the building and wanted to expand onto the York Street lot, “was offering the house free to anyone who would take it,” he said. He and Suzanne proposed moving the house, placing it on a new foundation and restoring it.
Attracted by the federal tax credits for rehabilitating historic buildings, several investors signed on. In summer 1989 Thurston Haslam and his crew from Ellsworth carefully moved the Jenkins House to its new address and eased it into place. Extensive rehabilitation followed.
That project led to others: Next came a house at 73 Pine St. — now the House Revivers headquarters — and then the Cyrus Clark House at Hammond and North High streets. Built in the 1830s, that house “was essentially an abandoned building,” Bob recalled.
House Revivers also rehabilitated buildings at 140 Hammond St. and the block stretching from 84-116 Hammond St. that once housed the Bangor Furniture Co. As with their other projects, the Kellys drew together investors interested in financing the block’s renovations.
“That was one of the biggest projects we have done,” Bob said. The block covered five floors and “about 27,000 square feet” and, beyond the physical renovations, provided another challenge.
“Finding an economically viable use for it was interesting,” he said.
“We literally did not know who was going in there,” Suzanne said.
Today the 84-116 Hammond St. block houses Bangor Wine & Cheese, Massimo’s Restaurant, commercial office space, and six apartments — and represents an excellent example of what can be done with historic rehabilitation.
While tax credits help make such projects financially attractive to investors, some people “are interested simply in saving old buildings,” Suzanne said. There exists “a sense of satisfaction in seeing” a building restored to use.
“When you invest in something like that, you can drive by and see what you’re investing in,” she said.
Intimate with Bangor’s architectural history, Bob Kelly seemed wistful as he talked about buildings lost to 1960s’ wrecking balls. “We have lost a lot of historically valuable buildings,” such as Bangor City Hall at Columbia and Hammond streets and Union Station, which stood on the Penobscot River frontage now occupied by the Penobscot Plaza. Both buildings were demolished during the city’s urban renewal heyday.
“We could have done a lot with those [two] buildings,” he said. “Imagine the potential that was lost with them.”
Many other older buildings were torn down by urban renewal. The Kellys agreed that not all older buildings are worth saving; “the definition of a building that we are interested in is a worthy, distressed older building,” Suzanne said.
“The ones that survive are the ones that were best built,” Bob said. “They built them to last.”
One well-worn building not lost to history was the Unitarian Church vestry on Main Street. While undertaking a building expansion, Merrill Merchants Bank purchased the building and hired House Revivers to rehabilitate it. The bank later became People’s United Bank.
The Kellys are familiar with the advantages that tax credits offer historic rehabilitation. “We’ve done more tax-credit projects than anybody else in the state,” Suzanne said.
“When we first started, there was a 20-percent federal tax credit,” Bob said. “Those tax credits are still available, and now there is a 25-percent state tax credit.”
Such credits “have carry-back and carry-forward provisions,” he said. “The tax credit is absolutely essential in so many of these projects.”
During each project, workers have encountered features peculiar to the particular building. “No two projects are the same,” Bob said, smiling at specific memories.
He mentioned the construction worker who emerged from the basement of the Cyrus Clark House and called Bob’s attention to a literally shaky brick wall that partially supported the upper floors. The worker pushed his hand lightly against the wall, and it moved slightly.
“I told him to stop before he brought down the house,” Bob said.
“You come up with all sorts of these surprises,” Suzanne commented. Inside the Clark House, “we uncovered this beautiful mantel” for “a fireplace with a beehive oven.”
At 140 Hammond St., workers opened a wall and discovered of a set of pocket doors hidden inside. Those doors became “part of the building’s modern charm,” Bob said.