Old Belfast schools looking for new lives

Posted Aug. 21, 2013, at 10:46 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 21, 2013, at 6:16 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — The tall, graceful windows of the 1915 Peirce School are dramatic, and the high classroom ceilings, the vintage chalkboards and the well-worn wooden floorboards have an abundance of charm.

“It is unique,” Stefan Keenan of the Keenan Auction Co. of South Portland said last week. “But old schools — they’re actually not that uncommon lately, especially because of consolidation.”

The auctioneer showed off these features and more with affection during a sparsely attended preview of the 11,000-square-foot property, which will be put up for auction on Wednesday, Aug. 28. The building at the corner of Church and Elm streets is one of two former early 19th century schools in Belfast that recently have come on the market. Although the zoning for both is limited, Keenan and others hope that buyers with an abundance of imagination will see possibilities where others might just see empty classrooms and an enormous heating bill.

“This auction, with the Peirce School — I think it’s going to be insane,” Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley said. “It’s an incredible building in a good neighborhood. A beautiful piece of property. I guarantee you something will happen.”

A few blocks closer to downtown Belfast on Church Street, a banner that recently was hoisted above the front door of the former Crosby High School suggested that a change is coming for that long-vacant building, too. “Available,” the banner reads, with the address of a website which gives some tantalizing information about the building and the city — though not a sale price.

“Things may move glacially, but when they move, they move fast,” Hurley said. “Belfast is now in the midst of movement.”

The potential for movement at the Crosby School is likely to be attractive to many in Belfast who remember when the school was a bustling part of the community. The National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped purchased the building from the city in 1996 for $200,000 and it became a seasonal adjunct for the New York City-based organization. According to that group, the workshop has invested $3.5 million in the old school building. For several summers after that purchase, Belfast was abuzz with both theater productions and seasonal residents connected with the workshop.

But activity began to taper off a few years ago as the nonprofit focused more on helping disabled veterans in Washington, D.C. The city of Belfast seized title to the deteriorating structure in 2010 after the workshop failed to pay its sewer bill, but returned the school to the nonprofit in 2011 when its owners stepped up to pay the lien, do mold remediation and clean up the building.

Thomas Kittredge, Belfast economic development director, said that the National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped last year made a proposal to the city, offering to sell it the downstairs performance space. The workshop would continue to own the upstairs floors, which would be rented or sold as housing.

“The council didn’t want to proceed with that,” Kittredge said.

Efforts to contact officials with the theater workshop by phone and email to learn more about their plans for the Crosby School were unsuccessful.

Possibilities for both those buildings are restricted because of current zoning, which limits them for use as a single-family house, a duplex, a school, some type of community center or an owner-occupied, single-practitioner office with no more than two full-time employees. Belfast is looking into doing contract rezoning for the schools and other, similar properties around town to make them easier to sell and develop.

Hurley and others have said that they regard the former Gov. Anderson School as a positive template for the two school buildings now on the market. A Montville-based nonprofit that focused on the arts purchased the 1935 building from the city in 2006, and it remains both viable and vibrant as Waterfall Arts.

One morning last week at Waterfall Arts, a piano teacher gave lessons to an adult student, a volunteer watched over the art gallery, and studio spaces carved out of classrooms were full of material for painting, sculpting, printmaking and more.

Co-founder Alan Crichton gave a whirlwind tour through the 16,500-square-foot space, which includes a basement performance area with two disco balls revolving lazily overhead, a photo exhibit from 1980s local photojournalist Richard Norton, and an artist studio filled with sticks and cut saplings wrought into fantastical shapes.

“Every room has a story,” Crichton said.

Although the former school is clearly well-used — thousands of people pass through its doors each year, he said — finding the money to keep it going for seven years and counting is a constant challenge.

“It doesn’t just happen automatically,” Crichton said. “You need a lot of community support. We have staff to pay. We have a terrific board. We have a wonderful team on every level. It’s important that people recognize we didn’t just fall out of the sky.”

He estimated that the operating costs of the facility hover around $250,000 a year. That includes paying for oil heat, which last year cost at least $15,000. Waterfall Arts generates revenue through many avenues, including rent for studio space, grants and donations, and having a location close to the center of the city means that more people are aware of what goes on there.

“Our being in town here in this very prominent building — it’s a real community center based in the arts,” Crichton enthused. “How good could that be? It’s incredibly cool.”

Supporters of the other old schools hope to find new life for those buildings, too. While Hurley said that he’s limited by his imagination in coming up with the best use for the buildings, he’s hoping others won’t be.

“Thousands of people are not limited by their own imaginations,” he said. “I just hope they remain as something that people go into on a regular basis.”