March 4, 2010

Donor plans space for arts

TOM BELL

— By

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Exterior and interior photos of the building at 660 Congress Street in Portland, taken on Monday, September 21, 2009. Philanthropist Roxanne Quimby has bought the building to turn it into artists' residences and gallery space.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Exterior and interior photos of the building at 660 Congress Street in Portland, taken on Monday, September 21, 2009. Philanthropist Roxanne Quimby has bought the building to turn it into artists' residences and gallery space.

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Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Roxanne Quimby, the philanthropist known for buying huge tracts of northern woodlands, has bought a vacant building on Congress Street to house an artists' residency program.

Quimby plans gallery space and four to six studios in the three-story building at 660 Congress St.

She wants to offer high-achieving artists free studio space, stipends and daily meals with other artists.

Artists from outside the Portland area could apply to the program and would be provided housing in the city. No one would live at 660 Congress St.

The idea is to take the concept of an artists' colony and put it in an urban setting, said the project manager, Patrick Gilgallon.

''The whole purpose of what Roxanne is trying to do is create a nurturing, supportive and creative environment for artists so they don't have to worry about day-to-day expenses,'' he said.

Built in the late 1800s, the Queen Anne Victorian is across Congress Street from Joe's Smoke Shop.

It previously housed Zinnia's antique shop, with apartments on the second and third floors.

The building has been vacant for the last couple of years and has been badly damaged by squatters and burst pipes.

Mold covers some of the walls. Portions of a floor are sagging, and parts of a ceiling are crumbling.

Quimby, who has a home on the Portland peninsula, bought the building last spring for $350,000, according to city records. By the time she's finished with renovations, she will have spent more than $1 million on the building, Gilgallon said.

Quimby plans to ask the City Council for some help.

Under a city ordinance designed to protect the city's housing stock from being converted to other uses, Quimby would have to pay $100,000 into a city fund that fosters new housing development.

She wants the council to declare her proposal a ''project of special merit'' and exempt her from the fee.

Councilor David Marshall, who chairs the council's Housing Committee, said he will support the proposal when it goes before the committee Oct. 6.

He said the building has been declining in value over the years and needs a huge influx of cash for improvements.

Moreover, Quimby's proposal is consistent with the city's comprehensive plan, which calls for more art studios in the area.

The building is in the city's arts district and the Congress Street historic preservation district.

Although he's concerned about losing housing units in the city, Marshall said, the building is vacant and isn't providing anything to the housing market.

''It is really a significant structure, but it's vacant, decaying and devaluating,'' he said. ''Getting a good investment in the building brings it up to code and gets it functioning again.''

The city's arts community is thrilled with the idea, said Jessica Tomlinson, a board member of Space Gallery.

The proposal would create more studio space -- something that is in dwindling supply as more and more studios get converted to other uses, she said.

It would give local artists a way to advance in their careers in Maine while mingling with other top artists from around the country.

Tomlinson said artists in the city would benefit from being exposed to new people and ideas.

''To me, this is serving a critical need in the arts community at a critical time,'' she said.

In 1984, Quimby co-founded Burt's Bees, which grew into one of the country's most successful lines of natural personal-care products.

She sold 80 percent of Burt's Bees to an equity company for $177 million in 2003.

Since then, she has become one of Maine's biggest property owners, buying vast parcels of Maine woodlands while advocating for the creation of a national park in the state.

Gilgallon said that Quimby often drove by the building at 660 Congress St. and was concerned about its fate.

''It's really an architectural gem,'' he said.

''It really stood out and was starting to cry out for attention and caught her eye. She thought it was worth saving.''

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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