With its turrets, giant circular windows, spires and walls of corrugated metal, the building at 444 Route 1A in Ellsworth has intrigued vacationers and local residents for years. Built up around a 1920s barn, the fortress appears post-apocalyptic, pieced together with odd materials and even odder architectural designs.
After sitting empty for years, curious passersby can now step inside the unusual building.
The recently renovated building opened this summer as 1A Relics, a three-story shop of antiques and art.
“The building is cool and it works for this business, it really does,” said Shelly Bradsell, who owns and runs the store with her husband Tom Bradsell. “As soon as we opened up the doors, [business] was steady all summer long. You know, I expected it to be busy, but not that busy.”
More than 50 antique vendors, craftspeople and artists rent space in the store. And while most people who walk through the door are there to shop, they are also curious about the building. “Who built this?” they ask. “And why?” After all, the interior of the building is just as bizarre as the exterior.
“People come and they’ll say, you should charge for admission for a tour,” Shelly Bradsell said. “I’m like, ‘No, you just enjoy yourself.’”
The unusual structure was created by Terrence Pinkham, who purchased the property in 1975, when he was 22 years old and had just graduated from what was then called Husson College in Bangor. At the time, the only building on the property was a 50-year-old barn.
“The barn set out by the road,” Pinkham recalled in a recent phone interview. “It was 18 feet from the white line, so I jacked it up and moved it back in ‘76. The building was 77 tons.”
Then Pinkham got to work, adding 30 feet of building to one side of the barn and 50 feet to the other. Every year he added something more — a balcony here, a column there, using a wide variety of materials.
“It’s just designs I had in my head,” Pinkham said.
While Pinkham had the vision, he did not build the structure with his own hands. Instead, he hired craftspeople and artists to bring his designs to life. Inside, the building is filled with custom woodwork, stonework and tilework. The interior is a hodgepodge of materials and designs that hint at the many hands that pieced it together. There are giant barrels built into the walls, walls of thick glass cubes, and a stone and brick walkway curving through a shiny hardwood floor.
“I traded and swapped with everyone you could think of to do that over the years,” he said.
The building served as a garage and offices for Pinkham’s antique automobile business, Moto-Car. It was also his family’s home.
For financial reasons, he lost the property in May 2014 when the building and the four acres surrounding it was sold at a foreclosure auction. After that, the structure sat empty as the new owner attempted to resell it.
“Just like everyone else who lives in this area and has driven by this building, I kept checking the price,” said Shelly Bradsell, who lives with her husband in nearby Otis.
A nurse educator for 20 years, Shelly Bradsell was ready for a change in career, and in the strange building she envisioned an antique shop.
“It took my husband and I six months to decide whether or not to do this,” she said. “I brought every contractor under the sun in here going, ‘What’s my worst case scenario?’ because it sat empty for six or seven years and basically was falling into the ground.”
Nevertheless, the Bradsells purchased the building about a year ago for $135,000, and since then, they’ve put just as much money into it for necessary renovations. Over the course of six months, they installed a new electrical system, new stairs, a second floor for about half the building, a new roof, insulation, support beams, a fire escape, walls and much more.
“This part of the building was basically just a shell,” Shelly Bradsell said as she stood in the east side of the building, which used to be a showroom for cars. “None of it was finished.”
Having already moved on from her job in health care, Shelly Bradsell worked alongside the contractor and workers during the renovation. And Tom Bradsell, who works as a disaster manager for a health care company, helped whenever he could.
“There was no heat, no water,” Shelly Bradsell said of the wintertime renovation. “Every day I was down at Dunkin’ Donuts bringing my [coffee] cup and trying to get warm, and I was looking rough. I had a hat on, gloves and this big orange puffy coat that was torn and leaking feathers, and I’m was covered in drywall … They never said a word. They were so polite.”
Many aspects of the building were not efficient, safe or up to code. For example, a catwalk without rails ran along one side of the building, leading to a firepole that ran to the bottom floor. So they tore out the catwalk and pole, reusing much of the material to cover unfinished walls.
“We tried to keep as much as we could because it was cool,” she said. “We repurposed a lot.”
In many cases, the Bradsells used their imaginations to add to the oddness of the building’s interior. For example, above a doorway on the second floor was elaborate white trim and a small railing that reminded them of the balcony that the Muppet characters Statler and Waldorf stand on in The Muppets Show. So they strung up some red fabric above the door for a curtain and found Statler and Waldorf replicas to create a scene that has been a big hit among customers.
Though the building’s sole set of stairs wasn’t up to code, the Bradsells kept them intact. The wide steps, custom-built to be uneven with wavy curves, reminded them of a waterfall, so they lined them with bamboo and closed them off to foot traffic, using them for a display instead.
A few months prior to the opening of 1A Relics, the Bradsells put a sign out by the road advertising their need for antique dealers, artists and craftspeople to rent booths in the shop. In no time, they filled the entire space.
“They just flocked,” Shelly Bradsell said. “I have people in here almost every week asking if I have space available.”
The shop has 56 vendors and a waiting list of more than 40 others. To accommodate them, the Bradsells are currently working to renovate the building’s vast basement — upping the retail space to nearly 10,000 square feet. They are also playing with the idea of building a neighboring auction house or flea market.
“The stuff that sells out of here is amazing,” Shelly Bradsell said.
The local artwork and wide variety of antiques add even more whimsy to the strange building, and if customers choose — and pay — they can bring a piece of it home.
For 1A Relic’s opening celebration, Shelly Bradsell said, her parents traveled down from Canada. That day, they watched as a customer purchased a $950 statue of a jester and a replica of a weapon from Star Trek.
“So [the customers] pay and they walk out — of course now their bill is well up over $1000 dollars — and my dad he goes, ‘What just happened?’” Shelly Bradsell said, laughing.
“I said, ‘Well, Dad, they just bought a jester and a sword.’”