GARDINER — In only a few months, the next phase in the life of the buildings at 161 and 165 Water St. will start.

Now, Alan Claude and Erin Skehan, with the help of the contractors they’ve hired, are remaking the two vacant mercantile buildings in the historic Dingley Block they bought earlier this year. The result will be retail space, apartments and studio space for their business, Alan Claude Inc., which produces art influenced by the style of travel posters of the 1920s and 1930s.

One of the retail spaces will be home to the gallery where Claude’s work will be showcased.

“This way we can have more of a gallery experience,” Skehan said recently while giving a tour of the building. “That’s really the main reason we wanted to move down here, and we’re excited to be down here.”

All of the construction, which has been undertaken with the help of Skehan’s father, is expected to be finished by late spring.

Gardiner’s historic downtown has been the focus of development activity in recent years.Fundraising is underway in for a $4.8 million renovation of Johnson Hall, the state’s oldest opera house. Investment and reinvestment in buildings has brought new businesses to or retained existing businesses on Water Street.

That activity is part of what drew Claude and Skehan, who are married, to Gardiner. They say the move opens up possibilities for them that they don’t currently have. Because they currently have no gallery, they can show prints only seasonally at art shows and fairs; and the studio space is about four times the size of their current studio in Farmingdale.

“There’s a lot of charm, architecturally, here,” Skehan said.

“You can walk to the grocery store, you can go to the bank, you can go to the post office,” Claude said.

A view of Gardiner Public Library, left, and Water Street from third floor of Dingley Block Dec. 5 in Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

While downtown Gardiner has historic charm, it also has a significant problem in that it sits in the flood zone of the Kennebec River. That can limit what part of the buildings can be used for and it can limit particularly what happens on the lower floors. Claude and Skehan have overcome that by converting the basement level into garages for the second-floor tenants, with an area carved out for a laundry room.

“If there’s a flood, we’ll bring up the washer and dryer,” Skehan said.

While the Kennebec River poses a threat when it floods, it’s also one of the draws that Gardiner offers. Skehan and Claude are capitalizing on the building’s location by installing decks overlooking the river to the second and third floors.

While the third floor studio space could be used as an apartment at some point in the future, Claude and Skehan say using it for their studio will transform their business now. The studio in the works is four times the space of their existing studio. And with the new space, they can take their work out of the residential Farmingdale neighborhood where it’s now located.

Leon Merrill frames in a back door to the deck Dec. 5 in Dingley Block on Water Street in Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

There’s also space for a sound studio where Claude can work on videos for the business as well as meeting space.

It marks a big change for the buildings that Gardiner Main Street acquired in 2016 for $1 from Camden National Bank.

The Dingley Block was built by the Dingley brothers in the second half of the 19th century, when trade in Gardiner was accomplished by water. The brothers operated a hardware store for about five decades. Since then, the buildings have housed enterprises as varied as a steam laundry, a grocery, a grist mill, a bowling alley, a restaurant and a wood, iron and ship chandlery.

Claude said he had asked about space in the building in the past, but he couldn’t make the finances work.

During 2018, Gardiner Main Street worked to shift the five former mercantile buildings into the hands of people who would put them back in productive use, and Claude said buying the building was a more attractive proposition.

At about the same time, 149 Water Street LLC,  Roger Bintliff’s limited liability company, bought the other three Dingley Block buildings, which are now under going redevelopment. Earlier this year Bateau Brewing, a craft beer tasting room, opened its doors in part of one of the buildings. Bintliff himself has been working on Bintiff’s Corner Brew, a coffee shop, which he plans to open soon, and a yoga studio is being recruited to occupy the remaining open Water Street level space he owns. The upper floors will be apartments.

“Those buildings have sat vacant and underused for years,” said Gardiner Main Street Executive Director Melissa Lindley.

Now that they are being developed, the buildings will provide a link between Gardiner’s popular Waterfront Park and downtown Gardiner and its attractions, Lindley said.

Bateau Brewing, at far left, and the back decks of Dingley Block are seen in this photo taken Dec. 5 in Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

“Our downtown is a community gathering spot,” she said. “It’s a place where people can meet their neighbors. Having a vibrant downtown contributes to the feeling of being a part of Gardiner and being connected to something.”

For Claude, this project resonated in a very personal way. His late mother, who was French,  would say, “Bravo! Tu es un vrai artiste! (Bravo! You’re a real artist!)”

Bravo, he said, was a word she often used, and at one time, a restaurant called Bravo’s was located in the building.

“That was her thing. So that’s my tug that brought me here,” he said.

For Skehan, redeveloping the properties is a chance to connect part of her past with her present. Decades ago, she worked at an ice cream shop in the building run by relatives.

“I was like 13 and scooping ice cream in this building,” she said, pointing to an old sign now pressed into service as temporary floor covering.

But by the time the summer visitors return next year, Claude and Skehan will be able to display their prints in an environment that’s more welcoming than a tent at an art fair.

“Collectors want to see Alan’s work in a gallery environment, and we can share what it looks like hung on walls,” she said.

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