July 29, 2013

Arts and design center planned for Biddeford's Marble Block

Transformation of the historic building, formerly home to Renys, has the potential to be an economic driver for downtown.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD - Behind the marble facade of the former Renys building in downtown Biddeford, Tammy Ackerman sees nothing but promise.

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Tammy Ackerman of the nonprofit arts organization Engine is seen here on the third floor of the former Renys store called the Marble Block in downtown Biddeford, where a theater stage and balcony remain.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Ackerman is renovating the former Renys store, center, to turn it into an arts and design center.

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Standing in the empty building last week, surrounded by crumbling window sills and peeling paint, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Engine: Propelling the Creative Economy described her vision for creating an arts and design center in one of Biddeford's historic buildings.

"There is nothing else like it here," she said of the Italianate architecture of the Marble Block. "This new center focused on art, design and technology education will add an extremely positive presence in the downtown and add to the city's current renaissance."

The vision goes beyond simply creating an arts hub in the city. Those involved with the project say the Marble Block has the potential to be an economic driver for the downtown, which is currently undergoing a revival of sorts with the closure of a trash incinerator and the redevelopment of Main Street buildings and former textile mills. 

"The mills faded away and when that happened, the community's vitality faded away as well," said Caleb Johnson, an architect working on the project and an Engine board member. "We're attempting to rebuild the economic vitality as well as the social mix by bringing in a bunch of little businesses and a bunch of different social and economic classes."

The vision for the Marble Block is to build a creative center focusing on arts exhibitions and education, including a media lab and space for Maine FabLab, a digital fabrication center with 3D printing capabilities.

The Marble Block, at 129 Main St., was built in 1877 by Orin A. Staples, whose initials can be seen under the eaves of the building, according to the city's Museum in the Streets. Portland architect Charles Kimball designed the building with a marble fa?e to make it stand out. High and wide windows were put in to allow more light into the building, which was used as a meeting place for the Palestine Lodge of the Masons and was home to the O.H. Staples department store.

The building, which had the first plate glass storefront in Biddeford, has had a variety of other uses during its history. It was a Fishman's department store, had a Chinese restaurant on the second floor, as well as a third-floor theater that featured live entertainment -- from boxing to a vaudeville show with a dentist performing fake tooth extractions on stage.

The building was most notable in recent years as home to the Renys store before the retailer moved across the river to Saco nearly a decade ago. John Reny, president of the company, said his family operated a store there for about 20 years. He said the history of the building is fascinating, starting with the total cost to construct it in the 1870s: $5,000.

"It's just a gorgeous building," Reny said. The Reny family gave the building to Engine in 2011, a year after the nonprofit organization was founded.

The first phase of the project will focus on infrastructure work and renovating the first floor to include a 3,000-square-foot exhibition and retail storefront and an education and workshop space of the same size.

Eventually, the project could include a green roof where vegetables could be grown to be served in a cafe in the building.

"We have a beautiful historic brick shell to work with," Johnson said.

Johnson said the first phase will cost at least $1 million, but estimates it will cost $4 million to renovate the entire three-story, 19,000-square-foot building. The organization recently secured a $25,000 grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation to begin the renovation. Additional fundraising events and a capital campaign are also in the works.

Engine will continue fundraising this week with performances of "Thine Eyes" by Subcircle, a performance company based in Philadelphia. The performance, which merges dance and sound, was filmed in the Marble Block and will begin at 7 p.m. Aug. 1-3 in Building 13 of the Pepperell Mill Campus. 

Ackerman said many people in the area seem interested in seeing the Marble Block revived, especially when it comes to the third-floor theater. The space has fallen into disrepair after years of not being used, but the standing balcony still circles the room.

"This is the most unique space and people want to see it revived," she said. "If only the walls could talk. I'm sure there were a lot of interesting things that happened in this space."

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com

Twitter: grahamgillian

 

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