BANGOR, Maine — The six buildings that line the west side of Exchange Street could be home again to what they once welcomed: banks, restaurants and even a garage. Or they could house something new, such as a salon or small-scale events center.
The CEO of the company that recently purchased what’s informally known as the Nichols Block is open to any notions a business developer or an architect might have, with one caveat.
“Any idea is good,” Adam Moskovitz said, “just so long as it adds value back to Bangor.”
The 39-year-old CEO of ANM Properties of Bangor gave local media a tour of the buildings on Thursday. ANM purchased the six buildings as one 53,000-square-foot property for an undisclosed price on Oct. 24 from the family of Eaton W. Tarbell Jr., whose father was a well-known Bangor architect.
The transaction and tour, Bangor Economic Development Director Tanya Emery said, signals the beginning of the end of about 20 years of vacancy or underactivity with the historic venues and the beginning of the next phase of their redevelopment.
“I think we have seen some major changes in downtown,” Emery said.
The Exchange Street buildings are part of the last major city block in downtown to be lifted from the blight that descended upon most metropolitan areas of the country in the 1980s and 1990s.
The city will help Moskovitz fill the buildings with businesses and restore what was the city’s first financial district, Emery said.
Moskovitz said he hopes to achieve at least a 70-percent occupancy rate within three years.
“That’s the biggest priority,” he said.
Moskovitz said he wants to preserve the historic integrity of the structures as much as possible.
The city will help him connect with preservationists to ensure that his work meets historic standards, Emery said.
The buildings themselves, which date back to the late 1800s, are loaded with historical details that are, Moskovitz said, almost impossible to create today.
The lobby of the former bank at the corner of State and Exchange streets could serve as a movie set for “The Great Gatsby.” Built in the 1910s, it has marble wainscoting and mosaic flooring and small offices bordered with short partitioning walls of hardwood and frosted glass. Its front door posts and archway are old-growth wood, ornately carved and dense, and would probably cost as much as $40,000 if built new, Moskovitz said.
“The wood that we use today is just not as durable,” Moskovitz said. “The grain is so tight and so dense with these [arches] that it is virtually indestructible. You could never find wood like this today.”
The off-white marble has some yellowish streaks, signs of age, that give it character. A few acetone washes, he said, would make it gleam. A large vault dominates the back of the room, and small safe deposit viewing rooms line the back of the main ground floor office like confessionals.
The small offices might make for elegant treatment rooms to a salon, but Moskowitz doubts that sort of business would make enough money to afford to stay there.
The first three buildings flow together through interconnected hallways and staircases narrow enough to be almost unbuildable today — no wheelchair accessibility — that sometimes open to large rooms with large boxy skylights. The staircases have ornately scalloped bannisters and newels still smooth and brass hanging ceiling lights in mint condition.
The ground floors of the buildings have ceilings at least 10 feet tall, but some have hanging ceiling tiles, apparently of 1980s vintage, that undercut the grandeur of the vaulting. The high ceilings might make the rooms difficult to heat, but Moskowitz said he believes that more modern environmental controls, such as heat pumps, would make their occupancy affordable.
Some parts of the buildings are half-modernized while others show the wear of age. One building’s ground floor, which was remade into office space, has a concrete floor and ceiling because it once served as a garage.
A former owner of one of the buildings got all the building permits but never finished installing a modern restaurant kitchen. Slits of light pour through cracks in the wood surrounding the arched windows in a ballroom in the same building. Emery described the ballroom, which includes a half-finished bar, as legendary.
“For years there have been these whispers around the idea that somewhere in downtown there’s a ballroom that hasn’t been used. This is that ballroom,” Emery said.
Emery said she had heard that one of the previous owners had imagined using the ballroom and bar as a kind of personal club for himself and his friends.
City officials have added the Exchange Street buildings to their catalogue of properties to develop and have already received some inquiries, Emery said, and can match some demonstrated downtown needs to the spaces Moskovitz has just acquired. The ballroom, for example, might make an excellent small-scale downtown events center that consumers have sought.
“Don’t expect it all to get gobbled up tomorrow. You want to find the right tenant for the right space,” Emery said, “and Adam is very committed to projects that are good for downtown, not necessarily the first project that comes in.”