Lewiston Sun Journal: A Labor of Love

Republished from Lewiston Sun Journal
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Carol Coultas, Business Writer

LEWISTON - David Clem has done enough historic renovations to know a beauty when he sees one.

So when he first viewed the Dominican Block - the 4-story, Queen Anne building that has anchored the corner of Chestnut and Lincoln streets since 1882 - he could see its potential, especially the top-floor ballroom.

Even though he was looking at it in 2 feet of pigeon poop.

"The craftsmanship in the corbelling, the brickwork, granite, cast iron ... it's just a well-built structure," said Clem, founder of the development firm Lyme Properties in Hanover, N.H. "When I walked into the top floor, well, that's what really grabbed me."

It wasn't just the building's "extraordinary bones" that grabbed Clem, but the chance to embark on a project that would preserve a significant piece of Lewiston's history and demonstrate civic responsibility between a private developer and community.

"I'm trying to play one small song in a whole concert in what it takes to revitalize a downtown," Clem said.

The building was first a parish school, then a community center for the thousands of Francos who stepped off the train at the nearby Grand Trunk Railroad into new lives in Lewiston's mills. The first floor was dedicated to retail, with classrooms on the second and third, and the top floor, an expansive ballroom was used for community gatherings. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

'A role to play'

Clem discovered the building with his son, a student at Bates College. Inspired by the college's attempts to foster a better relationship between town and gown, Clem thought preserving and renovating the Dominican Block would be his way of demonstrating civic engagement from the private sector.

"There was a role to play, helping revitalize the downtown and expand the relationship between Bates and the city," he said.

It's an issue near to his heart, having served as a city councilor in Cambridge while attending graduate school in urban studies and planning at MIT. Somewhere along the line he got bit by the bug - "a disease really" he said - to renovate old, historic buildings. More than 20 years ago, he and his partners renovated a complex of 21 mill buildings on 12 acres in Cambridge.

Since then, he's been involved in many projects, including the restoration of Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island. He prides himself on the quality of the work, inspired to rise to the level of the original craftsmen.

"If you care about old buildings as I do, the excitement is to live up to the original standards," he said.

He seems to be doing just that, said Gil Arsenault, city planning director, who has called Clem's project "first-class."

"As far as I'm concerned, he's a hero," Arsenault said. The building had been vacant for years after its last long-term tenant, a local drum and bugle corps, left it. It deteriorated to the point where bricks were falling out of the facade and Arsenault said he was afraid the building would have to come down.

Then Clem appeared.

"I'm very impressed ... it's nice space," said Arsenault, who toured the building a couple of weeks ago.

Clem is hoping others will be glad to see the Dominican Block alive again. He intends to solicit memories and photos from people who have a connection to the building. But first, he's knee deep into the renovation. He expects the first floor will house retail space and perhaps a restaurant, offices on the second and third floors, and performance space on the top.

But the specifics are still up in the air. Clem acknowledges that he's going about this project backward - starting with the renovation and then considering the market. He intends to apply for federal historic tax credits, which return about 20 cents on the dollar in income tax credits to help offset the project's cost.

"Essentially, to renovate this building to a standard I'm comfortable with is uneconomic," he said. "The market conditions in Lewiston mean it doesn't pay for itself."

Clem declined to reveal how much he's already sunk into the renovation, but the building permit to construct just the elevator shaft and stairway carried an almost $1 million price tag. Luckily, Lyme Properties also builds state-of-the-art research laboratories, Clem's "day job" that allows him to indulge his love of historic adaptation and restoration.

In order to qualify for the tax credits, the renovation must meet standards designated by the historic preservation commission. Those requirements sometimes conflict with modern building codes for handicap accessibility and other life-safety requirements. That means negotiating between various regulatory agencies - a frustrating, but familiar challenge for Clem.

"I've done a significant number of these, so I'm not overwhelmed," he said.

Crews should finish the roof repairs by the end of the month, and if the weather holds, have the exterior buttoned up so they can begin interior renovations through the winter. Plans call for preserving and restoring the original windows that front Lincoln Street and installing high-quality replicas in the other three sides. Modern sprinkler, evacuation and HVAC systems will also be installed.

If all goes according to plan, Clem hopes to have the building available for tenant fit-up in 2009. But he's taking it one day at time.

"Right now, the Lewiston block is a labor of love, not of economics," he said.