AUGUSTA — From the Gannett Building in the south to the stone-arched Bond Brook bridge in the north, the buildings and structures that line Water Street reveal a rich and architecturally significant history that experts believe should be the pride of the city.
Christopher Closs, field service representative for Maine Preservation and Portland Landmarks, offered highlights of that history to a couple dozen people who took part in Saturday’s historic walking tour. The tour, organized by the Augusta Historic Preservation Commission and open to the public, focused on the architecture of a number of downtown buildings, particularly the 12 listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is yours,” Closs said. “It’s important.”
Many of the buildings south of Bridge Street were built after an 1865 fire swept through much of that end of Water Street. Most, such as the Olde Federal Building, were built in stone, and later brick, to prevent a re-occurrence of the fire. The northern end of Water Street, however, includes buildings that date to the 1840s or earlier. The result is a city street that depicts what Closs called the “evolving nature of architecture.”
The highlighted buildings included Stacy’s on the east side of the street. That building was designed and erected in the 1930s.
“This is probably one of the best Art Deco faces in the state of Maine,” Closs said.
Two buildings on the west side of Water Street immediately north of Bridge Street, which now house the Five Star Village Chinese restaurant and Q&E Trading, were built in the 1830s and 1840s.
“These are the earliest buildings we’ve seen,” Closs said.
Just north of there he stopped to describe the Bond Street buildings that once provided housing for employees at nearby Edwards textile mill. The buildings honor immigrants who came to work at the mill and laid the foundation for the nation’s economic prosperity, Closs said. There are few examples of such housing left in the state, so the Bond Street buildings offer a chance to serve as a permanent reminder.
“There’s an opportunity here to recreate a design vocabulary for these buildings that will recreate the design intent,” Closs said. “That could be something really special for Augusta. This is yours and it’s important.”
Even the low-slung train trestle is remarkable for more than providing the occasional trailer-buster for trucks that get caught under it. Closs said the steel bridge is remarkable for its design and use of rivets. Other communities have used such bridges to form public parks.
“There’s tremendous potential for these,” he said. “Let’s hope the railroad doesn’t develop plans to remove this anytime soon.”
The city in the 1980s looked into designating the street as a historic district, but federal officials rebuffed the attempt because of changes made to the exteriors of many buildings. Closs thinks the street might now be eligible for such a designation.
“In my opinion, you have the makings of a register of historic districts here,” he said. “That’s a planning move the city has to make.”
Closs said owners fear such a designation will prevent them from making changes to their property or that it will increase property taxes, but he said such fears are misguided. The designation is useful for planning purposes and opens up avenues of grant funding for owners and the city that otherwise would be unavailable. He said the designation can leverage up to 50 percent in matching funds. He said 56 projects in Maine since 2008 have leveraged $325 million, all during one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history.
“National Registry of Historic Districts don’t have a down side for the community,” Closs said. “If we can get it done, it’s only going to be a good thing for the city of Augusta.”
City Councilor Cecil Munson, who snapped pictures of the highlighted buildings throughout the tour, said the city has missed opportunities to preserve some of its historic buildings. A former chairman of the Augusta Historic Preservation Commission, Munson agreed that a historic district designation would ease the process of seeking outside money to revitalize the downtown, which remains a city priority.
Munson said the council could seek an assessment to find out whether the street qualifies for the designation at no cost.
“I think that would be a good first step,” he said.
Lorie Mastemaker, who kept diligent notes on all the buildings discussed during the tour, said raising public awareness is a key component to protecting the buildings and other historic places.
“There are historic resources in our community that need protection,” she said. “The more people hear the better chance we have to protect what’s in our community.”
Mastemaker said the process of designating a historic district is labor-intensive but worthwhile.
“We certainly advocate for that,” Mastemaker said.
Craig Crosby — firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @CraigCrosby4