BUCKSPORT, Maine — Larry Wahl doesn’t know whether he will recoup the $600,000 he plans to spend refurbishing Wilson Hall, but the businessman is determined to finish the job of converting the 169-year-old former Methodist seminary into an apartment complex.
More than a decade after the town of Bucksport acquired the property through foreclosure and following failed attempts to revive it and even raze it, renovations have finally begun.
As of Thursday, workers had replaced about half of the floors in the two-story building and they were installing support beams for its recognizable cupola — which had tilted on the building’s leaky roof for years. They plan to add the tower structure back to the roof within a few weeks.
Wahl, who owns Wahl’s Dairy Port on Bucksport’s Main Street, said he hopes to finish sealing the roof by December, then resume work in the spring.
“This has been said before,” Wahl, 73, said Thursday. “When it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And this building, it’s got so much history to it. It’s a love of history. I’ve just got this thing about the way buildings were built back in the day, the architecture of this particular one. It’s a handsome building.”
“Well, it will be,” he added. “It wasn’t so much, back in June.”
That’s when the renovation began, four months after the town sold the hall, at 34 Middle St., to Wahl for $1. To help the town rid itself of the decrepit structure — which once came within a town councilor’s vote of being razed — the deal included an interest-free, $65,000 loan forgivable in five years if Wahl succeeds in repurposing the structure.
Wahl counts three developers, and the town, among those who tried to make something of the property prior to his purchase.
“Something had to be done. I don’t think the roof would have taken another winter,” Wahl said.
The roof and the building’s signature cupola leaked so badly and rotted out what was beneath them that Wahl was forced to replace all the floors and all of their support beams, said Larry White of Restorations Unlimited, a contractor working on the project.
“We were shoring it up to even start in here so we didn’t get hurt in the process of tearing it apart,” White said. “It was a lot of widowmakers — eight-by-eight beams that were hanging and rotten. We had to support each floor from the basement so that we could tear out the floor that we were on and not have the upper one fall down on us.”
Wahl’s purchase of the building in February wasn’t much of a surprise to Bucksport Community and Economic Development Director Richard Rotella or his intern, Rhiannon Swift, a Bucksport High School student who has worked part time for Wahl at his store for three years.
They describe him as a taciturn man, energetic and, when committed to something, committed fully. Wahl has served as a board member of the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, the Lighthouse Arts and Education center and the town library as well as a member of the town’s Community and Economic Development Committee.
“He’s always just running around doing stuff, council meetings, whatever,” Swift said. “He has to like to be involved, because he’s super-involved, and I think he wants to make the town a better place, because he works very hard for the town.”
“When he puts his mind to something, he will get it done,” Rotella said. “There’s more progress being made on Wilson Hall now than in the previous 41 years.”
While Wahl is determined to finish the job at Wilson Hall, one question that remains is about the flow of funding. Income from Wahl’s ice cream shop is funding the work, he said, and it would help if the building qualifies for state and federal tax breaks to rehabilitate buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Due to the likely intermittent nature of its funding — along with the possibility of ugly surprises that an old, rotting building can spring on a contractor — the renovation will likely take about five years, Wahl said.
“When it’s finished, it’s going to be like day and night,” he said. “It will have windows in it, the bell tower will be straight, the roof will be tight. A new roof versus an old leaky roof is day and night right there. But there’s a lot riding on this.
“What’s at stake here? My retirement.”