WITH ITS PROJECTING gabled center bay, entry porch and columns, and Palladian and Lunette windows still as dominant features, this is what Topsham’s former town hall and grammar school looks like today.

WITH ITS PROJECTING gabled center bay, entry porch and columns, and Palladian and Lunette windows still as dominant features, this is what Topsham’s former town hall and grammar school looks like today.

TOPSHAM

It no longer had its majestic cupola, but after a century it still stands, facing Elm Street with its notable entry porch and projecting gabled center bay.

Whether or not you’re a student of historic architecture, The Highlands officials say there’s a lot of curiosity about just what is going in the former Topsham Town Hall and former John A. Cone School.

Topsham residents and anyone driving down Elm Street the past several months have watched construction workers swarming over the building, with a big sign out front announcing new apartments available, a Highlands press release states.

“Designed by noted Lewiston architect George M. Coombs, the two-story building went up in 1896, and was known as the Topsham Grammar or Village School,” the release notes. “It was renamed the John A. Cone School in 1938, and for nearly 30 years, Topsham children attended here through the eighth grade before going to high school in Brunswick. In 1965, it was heavily damaged by a fire, and a year later reopened as the Topsham Town Hall.”

Ralph Williams, Topsham’s historian, said when the John A. Cone School burned in 1965, the nearby Williams School’s new gymnasium was divided into classrooms for the displaced students to use while a new school was under construction. The new John A. Cone School was built near the Williams School — now the Williams Cone Elementary School.

Originally, the school served as the grammar and high school for Topsham, but in approximately 1909 high school students began attending Brunswick High School again.

After an earlier fire, the building was remodeled in the 1940s, Williams said. There was concern about the structural integrity and weight of the cupola, which served no practical purpose, so it was removed. After the fire in 1965, the former school was patched up and became the town hall, Williams said.

The basement housed the police department and a holding cell before the new police station was built behind the town hall in 1994 named for Frank Carver, the town’s first police chief. Then the basement was used for the town’s archives. There were still charred reinforced beams downstairs and, on damp days, the town hall smelled like smoke, said Williams, a former student.

Former students remember their years at the school. Williams said one woman told him about the domestic science building alongside the main school where girls learned about subjects like sewing, cooking and cleaning — and in her case was taught to never stand a broom on its bristles.

Today, there are two apartments on both floors which feature granite countertops, brand-new appliances, gas fireplaces and 11-foot ceilings with soaring windows.

Cathy Padham, director of sales and marketing at The Highlands, said former students who toured the space recently were amazed by the changes.

“Something they remembered from school days was the building wasn’t insulated like it is now,” she said. “One told me it was always cold when they stood by a window, but at least the sun would stream in and warm things up a bit. I’m so glad we still have windows in the same places, which is why this building is filled with natural light.

“It’s exciting to have the former school and town hall refurbished so beautifully,” Padham continued. “It’s truly a case of old meets new.”

Matt Teare, director of development for Sea Coast Management Company, has been closely involved in Highland projects, and said The Highlands has preserved and renovated the Benjamin Porter House at 26 Elm St., Holden Frost House at 24 Elm St., and the Scribner House at 20 Elm St. — and now the old schoolhouse at 22 Elm St.

“Frankly, those have been some of the most interesting and enjoyable projects we have taken on despite the fact that they take a little more time and effort,” Teare said. “If you are trying to create an attractive community you really cannot start with a better foundation than Elm Street in Topsham and the historic homes that line the street. You just can’t recreate that sense of place and history. As long as the buildings are in good enough shape to be rehabilitated, we really didn’t consider a different approach.”

Teare said working with the Topsham Historic District Commission has been nothing but positive due to the commission’s “flexible approach and common sense rules when they review a project.”

“They want to make sure you maintain the integrity of the properties, but they understand the costs and limitations involved. And their approach helps to ensure that your investment in a historic home is protected,” Teare said.

The sale of the old town hall and police station buildings to The Highlands closed on Jan. 3, 2008, for $1 million.

When The Highlands bought the former town hall property “it was in very difficult shape. But when we saw the historic photo from 1900 with the huge windows — you could immediately see what an attractive building it had been,” Teare said.

“With the renovation and the return of those windows, it really looks great. It has been our pleasure to see it brought back and we hope that the residents of Topsham and The Highlands — and the members of the Historic District Commission — are happy with the finished product,” Teare added.

Two of the four apartments are already rented, and move-ins will start in early February.

• MATT TEARE, director of development for Sea Coast Management Company, said The Highlands has preserved and renovated the Benjamin Porter House at 26 Elm St., Holden Frost House at 24 Elm St., and the Scribner House at 20 Elm St. — and now the old schoolhouse at 22 Elm St.


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