June 21, 2018
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Labor of love leads man to restore historic former Rockland church

By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Peter Davis said he fell in love with the 163-year-old former Cedar Street Baptist Church the first time he saw it.

He has spent countless hours over the past several years to restore the historic structure to its 1900-era look. Now, he is ready to convert some of the former church building into a gallery and studio for his other love — art.

The church, located at the intersection of Cedar, Brewster and Bunker streets, is nestled in a residential area of the city. The church was constructed in 1851 by Rockland native Hiram Berry for the Second Baptist Church congregation. Berry was a master carpenter who operated a lumber company.

Berry long wanted to pursue a career in the military and joined a regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War. He would become a Civil War general who was killed by an enemy rifleman during the battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia on May 2, 1863, according to the Shore Village Story.

The church was the tallest building in the city’s north end at that time, Davis pointed out, with a town clock on the front.

The church — originally named the Cedar Street Baptist Church — saw a decline in its membership in the late 1800s. Eventually the congregation sold the building to the Christian Scientists in 1913 with the members of the Baptist congregation joining other local Baptist churches.

The Christian Scientists had extensive renovations done to the building. Davis said they created a more traditional New England church style by adding a balcony and stage, as well as creating a more intimate worship area.

The Christian Scientists operated the church until they built a new, smaller building and sold the older structure to the Salvation Army in 1962. The Salvation Army used it until it had a new center built on Route 1 in Rockland near the Thomaston townline in 2000.

Davis purchased the 3,669-square-foot building located on a quarter acre in May 2007 for $110,000.

He said the restoration of the church has been the largest project he has undertaken. The Salvation Army added several rooms after it purchased the building that would later be used for functions such as a food pantry and child care. The Salvation Army also installed suspended ceilings and covered sections of the flooring with plywood and linoleum. He spent the first two years deconstructing those changes to bring the church back to the way it was immediately after the Christian Scientists bought it and renovated it.

The building was structurally sound, though Davis said he needed to replace the roof. The bulk of the work consisted of removing what had been added by previous renovations.

“The bones were good, but there was a lot to bring back,” he said.

Following those two years of work, he and his partner made the building their home. The work continued, however.

He installed new windows and insulated the building. He replaced several damaged tin ceiling tiles with ones he found stored in the attic.

He estimated he used 65 gallons of white paint to cover the interior.

Davis has been in the restoration business since the late 1970s. He started with buying old boats on Islesboro, which he would then sell. He moved to the mainland several years ago where he bought old buildings, restored them and sold them.

Then he saw the closed Salvation Army church.

“I fell in love with it. This was a beautiful, old building that had been abandoned,” he said.

Davis said he always wanted to live in an open space setting and said the church offered him that opportunity.

When asked how many hours he invested in the property, he asked, “How many hours are there in the last five years?”

He has been doing the work on his own.

The building has a main room that is nearly 1,900 square feet, with 21-foot-high tin ceilings. There are 1½ bathrooms in the living area. The stage and balcony remain.

Davis now wants to do more than just live in the former church. He wants to integrate his love for art into the building. He said he has been a photographer for much of his life and more recently has focused on creating sculptures.

The Rockland Planning Board approved a change of use for the property at its Tuesday meeting to allow for Davis to have a home occupation at the former church. He hopes to open his studio and gallery in September with the name of Noro Gallery, which stands for North Rockland.

He said he hopes eventually to have up to three other artists join him in a cooperative. He is creating that studio space on the Bunker Street side of the building, which will have the entrance for the studios and galleries.

Davis said he has placed the property on the market but said he is not actively trying to sell it. Currently, the only place it is being marketed is on his website, norogallery.com. He said he hopes to be able to find the right person to buy it and retain its charm. Otherwise, he will keep the historic building.

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