PORTLAND — As a board member with the Maine College of Art, John Coleman heard often about the problems that made it difficult for the school to sell the former Baxter Library building at 619 Congress St.

So he found it hard to believe the words coming from his mouth last year when the board was told that a potential developer wouldn’t be able to move ahead with the sale without a main tenant.

“I said, ‘I think I might have an idea, and I can’t believe that I’m saying this out loud,’” said Coleman, chief executive officer of VIA Group, a Portland advertising and marketing firm. “I could understand why no one would want this building – with my rational side – but my emotional side said, ‘What a great home.’ “

VIA Group ended up becoming the building’s tenant, and today the company will celebrate its move into the 122-year-old brick structure with a grand opening.

Coleman showed off the building Tuesday like a proud parent, pointing out the built-in card catalog that was kept, with most of the original library cards intact.

The library’s many small rooms are now offices or conference rooms. Wide-screen televisions grace many of the walls. Workers’ cubicles are next to built-in bookshelves and lofts. Board rooms and even a theater are scattered throughout the building, while the windows and wood detailing remain as Francis H. Fassett designed them in the late 1800s.

Coleman said the goal was to come up with a building that preserved the structure’s history and design, yet worked for the 21st century and could hit clients with a “wow” factor, which is important in the advertising field.

A half-million feet of cable was strung through the building, which was built at the dawn of the electric age, and the company chose contemporary furniture and artwork that helps the building’s features stand out more than if it had been filled with antiques.

The building’s transformation almost didn’t happen.

It was abandoned when the Portland Public Library’s main branch moved from the Baxter Library to the current location at Congress and Elm streets in 1979.

In 1981, seniors at what was then the Portland School of Art moved into the abandoned building for their annual art show.

The Maine College of Art soon bought it to use for classroom and studio space. But after it completed renovating the former Porteous department store, a little closer to downtown, the Baxter building was no longer needed. It went on the market about the time the economy began to tank.

Northland Enterprises had the building under contract for about 18 months, searching for enough tenants to assure banks and investors that the renovation would make financial sense, said Josh Benthien, one of the partners in the development group. Robert C. S. Monks, a board member of MaineToday Media, is also a partner in Northland.

“The building’s a funky building,” Benthien said.

It was originally envisioned as a place where artists, photographers and web designers could set up offices and studios and share some of the larger common spaces.

But finding enough tenants to fill at least 75 percent of the building while the economy was bad – and letting the tenants know it could be a couple of years before the building was ready – left the investors ready to surrender their deposit and cancel the sale, Benthien said.

Coleman’s interest revived the project, he said.

“We had a very foggy vision of what (the building) could be, and John (Coleman) had a clearer vision,” he said.

Having a tenant enabled the developers to nail down a plan for the rehab and come up with a price: $4.8 million.

Benthien said about $1.1 million of the cost was offset by federal and city tax credits for renovating the historic structure, a small city grant, and a creative-economy tax district that steers part of the property taxes to pay off a loan that filled a gap in the financing.

Seeing the building filled with workers – VIA Group has about 70 – helps erase the memory of the project’s uncertainty, Benthien said.

For Coleman, his thinking-out-loud idea now makes business sense. The lease on the Baxter building costs less than what it did to rent the company’s former quarters, on Danforth Street. The per-square-foot cost is about one-quarter of what the company pays for space in its New York office.

Plus, at the end of his short walk to work each morning, Coleman can recall what drew him to the site in the first place.

“You really felt the decades of service,” Coleman said. “Every time I walked into this building – I’m a big romantic at heart – it was so dramatic and beautiful.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]