ROCKLAND, Maine — Mario Abaldo said after he and his family moved back to the midcoast from the West Coast, he couldn’t get the former Lincoln Street Center out of his mind.
“When we arrived back to Maine, we tried to figure out what to do, and we just kept coming back to this building,” Abaldo said.
The nearly 150-year-old building has managed to survive numerous owners and changes, but the latest rescue has come from the hands, money and determination of Abaldo.
He said the historic nature of the three-story structure attracted him, and after inspecting the building, he was confident he could fix it.
“It is too good to let go,” he said.
And his vision of creating a cultural and educational center for the community fits into Rockland’s emergence as a cultural center, he said.
Abaldo is the principal partner of Orchid LLC which purchased the Lincoln Street building in December 2012 from Camden National Bank for $125,000. The other members of the corporation are Erez Ram of Agoura, California, and Oded Ashe of Burbank, California.
Built in 1868 to serve as the high school for Rockland, the structure underwent major renovations from 1921 through 1923, and wings were built on both ends of the school. The building served as the high school until 1963, when Rockland District High School was built. It then served as the junior high and later middle school until 1995, when the building was closed mid-school year after parents, students and staff complained about illnesses believed linked to poor air quality.
The city of Rockland acquired the property back from the school district in 1996 and considered several uses for it, including elderly housing.
The nonprofit Lincoln Street Center organization was formed and leased the building from the city for three years before buying it for $61,000 in April 2002. The organization could not break even financially and ended up losing the building to the bank that held the mortgage.
Abaldo, born in Hollywood, California, moved to the midcoast of Maine while in high school. He graduated from Medomak Valley in 1981, and while there, took masonry classes at the Region 8 Vocational Center in Rockland.
He then enrolled at Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute, studying construction management, and the University of Maine at Orono for structural engineering.
After college, he worked for John Morris Architects on various projects including the Harbor Plaza Shopping Center in Rockland.
Abaldo married Sherry Barker, who worked at Varied Directions, and the two moved to southern California so she could go to film school at the University of Southern California. He eventually operated his own design and build construction firm.
But the family moved back to the midcoast after the economic downturn struck California hard.
He continues to focus on design and build while paying particular attention to the restoration of the former school building.
Abaldo and his crew of five, with the occasional help from subcontractors, have renovated the structure from the basement to the roof of the three-story brick building. Work began in January 2013.
Much of the roof has been replaced, and remaining sections of the roof will be replaced. All the plumbing has been replaced. Considerable electrical work also was done, the floors have been refinished, and the walls have been repaired and painted.
A shaft was built, and soon, the elevator will be installed.
The 35,000-square-foot building is served by one large boiler that has been worked on to reach 92 percent efficiency, he said.
“I didn’t come into this blind,” Abaldo said. He said he conducted a thorough inspection but acknowledged you never know what you will find until you begin renovations.
He declined to say how much has been spent, but plans filed with the code enforcement office projected the renovations would be $500,000.
“I wanted to keep as much historical integrity of the building as I could,” he said.
Abaldo plans to have the Lincoln Street Center be a cultural, educational and community center for the region. He said this would complement the existing art offerings in Rockland that include the Farnsworth Art Museum, Strand Theatre, numerous private art galleries, and by next spring, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The Lincoln Street Center is within walking distance to the downtown arts scene.
He said one significant change to the building was to divide many of the larger classrooms into smaller rooms of varying sizes. He said many artists who want to lease space did not need the larger rooms. There will be about 42 rooms to rent when the project is completed.
Renovations are nearing completion, but he said he does not want to give a projected opening date.
His plan calls for the top floor to focus on art studies and for the display of art. On the top floor is a theater with seating for 340 people, including the balcony. He said that the seating can be increased to 550 by placing folding chairs in front of the stage.
The first floor will be the activity center — for offerings such as dance, karate and yoga.
The lower level will be the industrial part for woodworking, pottery and glass blowing.
The lower level also has the gymnasium, which will be available for private dances, fundraisers, sporting events, tournaments and expositions, he said.
Abaldo’s philosophy for the building is to combine all the spectrums — education, arts, performing arts, business and expos — and integrate them. He said people who come for a theater performance will become exposed to the other elements of art.
He said he also plans to retain one room for the Rockland school museum. The room contains memorabilia from Rockland schools dating back to the school’s opening a few years after the American Civil War.
Artists and others who are interested in leasing space in the Lincoln Street complex can contact Abaldo or his general manager Abraham Knight.