Restoring Maine’s Once-Vibrant Public Buildings

In rural pockets across the state, residents are finding community in rehabbed antique structures (and bringing back contra dancing).

Dover-Foxcroft’s Central Hall,
Central Hall. Photo courtesy of Dover-Foxcroft Historical Society
By Sarah Stebbins
From our March 2024 issue

In 1880, the prospect of a new auditorium in the town of Dover generated much enthusiasm. “We can build a hall to which we shall be pleased to invite friends and strangers, let us be about it!” declared the Piscataquis Observer. Two years later, nearly 800 people attended the grand opening of the 7,200-square-foot mansard-roof Central Hall. In the ensuing decades, it hosted town meetings, dances, plays, graduations, silent movies, roller-skating nights, and basketball games. In 1925, two years after Dover merged with neighboring Foxcroft to form Maine’s only hyphenated town, an indoor shooting range was added. But the second-floor event space, with its handsome wooden stage and balcony, eventually became unusable on account of a leaking roof. In 2008, the town offices on the lower level moved to another building. Central Hall sat empty and residents faced a choice: demolish an aging behemoth that hadn’t hosted a social function in at least a decade or invest in its restoration.

Deferred maintenance, tight municipal budgets, and dwindling participation in churches and fraternal organizations have left once-vibrant community buildings by the wayside in small towns across Maine. Changes in industry, like the shuttering of 19th-century wool and lumber mills in Dover-Foxcroft, have destabilized economies and forced residents to seek work elsewhere, leaving them with less time to invest in their hometowns, says Brad Miller, preservation manager at the nonprofit Maine Preservation. “When we meet with economic-development folks in rural communities and ask, ‘Where do people primarily work?’ it’s usually like an hour away,” he says. “And so there isn’t the ability for everyone to pitch in at the Masonic lodge to sustain that place.”

A community without a communal gathering spot can feel isolating. “In this area, if you want to go out, you go to a bar,” says Bridgton musician Elizabeth Roth, who found herself constantly searching for other venues to perform and hang out in. In 2020, she opened Bear Mountain Music Hall in an 1844 church turned Grange hall in neighboring Waterford. “I saw it as a place to create community and have a conversation without having to scream,” she says. Following the Grange-hall model, she offers diverse events: ballroom-dancing lessons, author talks, and art classes, in addition to concerts by mostly local musicians. She’s currently working on opening a café in the former schoolhouse that was installed beneath the church in the 1870s. “People are happy to see someone bringing the place back to what it used to be,” she says.

From left: Waterford’s Bear Mountain Music Hall, photo courtesy of Bear Mountain Music Hall; Surry Village School, photographed by James Talala/Alamy

Eclectic programming was also key to the reimagining of the 1872 Surry Village School. In 2016, when resident Gete Thomson learned the town might tear down the vacant Greek Revival and Italianate two-story building where she attended kindergarten, she formed a preservation group to raise the $200,000 needed to restore it and purchase an adjacent lot, where they plan to put in a park. The schoolhouse reopened in 2020 with a sandwich board out front announcing concerts, art shows, bake sales, and bean suppers. After presenting her budget to the town, Thomson says, “I thought, what in the hell have I done? That’s a lot of brownies, yard sales, and begging. But the people wanted it, they have ownership of it, and they appreciate that it’s been saved.”

In Dover-Foxcroft, a group of residents raised nearly $1,800,000 (via donations and capital-funding grants) to gut Central Hall and rebuild it as a modern auditorium that resembles the old one, with the original stage, balcony, and staircases. Reopened in 2019, the building hosts more than 1,000 classes and events per year, from tai chi and contra dancing to art exhibits, concerts, proms, and weddings. “In a small town, initiatives like this have to come from volunteers who are looking ahead,” says Chris Maas, a director at the Dover-Foxcroft Historical Society who spearheaded the Central Hall renovation. “Then, you get the support of the community and you end up with something very different than just saving an old building.”

From our special “Welcome to Small Town, Maine” feature, highlighting some of the challenges and charms of small-town life and people who are passionate about their tight-knit communities. Find a few “Welcome to Small Town, Maine” stories here on the website, and pick up a copy of our March 2024 issue to read them all!

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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