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by Gregor Smith
Imagine a street-level, performance and display space for art exhibits, concerts, poetry readings, lectures, discussions, and small theatrical and dance productions in downtown Waterville. Imagine meeting artists from around the world who have come to Waterville to create new works and share their knowledge and skill.
These two elements are the crux of Colby College's new "arts collaborative," which is taking shape in the former Waterville Hardware building at the base of Main Street. Construction started in early July and is expected to be completed next April. The interior of the building will be rebuilt with new plumbing and wiring, while retaining the historic integrity of the exterior. A small addition in the back will house an additional entrance, an elevator, and stairs.
The nearly 25,000 square foot building, which is technically four adjacent buildings, was built in 1836. Colby College purchased the vacant, four-story structure in August 2015, as part of a downtown buying spree. It sits directly across from the site of the former Levine's Department Store, where Colby's Lockwood Hotel is nearing completion.
The $6.5 million arts collaborative was publicly announced in February, when the Lunder Foundation, created in 1988 by former Waterville residents and arts patrons extraordinaire Peter and Paula Lunder, donated $3 million to the project. The exhibition and performance space will take up the entire first floor of the renovated building, which will have two, large glass "garage doors" in the front that can be pushed up to encourage passers by to wander in. Studios for visiting artists will fill the second and third floors, and the fourth floor will provide workspace for the Lunder Institute for American Art. According to its website, the institute "supports innovative research and creative production that expands the boundaries of American art."
This new arts collaborative the building does not yet have a name will complement Colby's other big arts-oriented investment in downtown, the Paul J. Schupf Art Center, at 93 Main Street. Historically home to Sterns' Department Store, the building has been more recently known as "The Center." In that later incarnation, it housed various businesses, community organizations, and governmental offices, including the Common Street Arts gallery and classroom, the Waterville Opera House's Dance Studio and Studio Theater, Waterville's City Council Chambers, and the Maine Made Shop.
Estimated to cost around $18 million, this latter project is a joint effort of Colby College and Waterville Creates!. Although the design is not yet final, previously released renderings show the building with its fourth floor removed and most of its southern brick wall, the one facing Castonguay Square, removed and replaced with a wall of glass. The renovated building will house a modern art gallery for the Colby College Museum of Art, a three-screen art house movie theater to replace Railroad Square Cinema, a rehearsal and reception space for the Waterville Opera House, and a gallery, classroom, and studio for Common Street Arts. Construction is expected to start early next year.
These tandem arts enterprises are only Colby latest efforts to remake downtown Waterville. The college's efforts began in earnest in the summer and fall of 2015, when besides the former Waterville Hardware, it bought three other blighted and mostly vacant buildings.
In July 2015, the college bought and subsequently renovated the Hains Building two blocks north at 173 Main Street, on the corner of Appleton Street. Erected in 1903 as the Waterville Savings Bank, that building is now home to pizzeria Portland Pie Co., information-technology firm CGI, and Colby offices.
Also in July 2015, Colby bought the Levine's building at 9 Main Street, which it subsequently tore down. In July 2018, the college bought the neighboring Camden National Bank building, and tore it down as well, enabling it to start construction of its $26 million, 48,000-square-foot, 53-room Lockwood Hotel. Although the hotel is expected to be completed this October, the four-story edifice will initially be used as supplemental housing for Colby students, rather than paying guests, due to the pandemic.
In October 2015, Colby bought the two-story brick building at 13-15 Appleton Street and its adjoining parking lot. Formerly the Elks Lodge, the building more recently housed the Resurrection Life Church. Colby has since razed that building to create additional parking to offset some of the 90 spaces that were lost when it built the Alfond Commons on the northeast corner of the Concourse.
The Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons themselves opened in August 2018. The $25.5 million, 100,000-square-foot, five-story building is designed to house 200 students, faculty, and staff on the top four floors. The ground floor has a public meeting space, the Chace Forum, on the north end and the Camden National Bank on the south end. The space in between will be developed later retail use.