Aaron Turkel, co-owner of the Lemont Building in Brunswick, stands with a cache of historical documents, primarily ledger books kept by the Knights of Pythias, left in the building’s upper levels, which have been untouched for decades. Turkel plans to restore the building and construct five luxury apartment units. The important local documents have been donated the the Pejepscot History Center, and the remaining pieces will be displayed in the building’s common areas, he said. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — When Aaron Turkel and Cleo Vauban decided to purchase Brunswick’s historic Lemont Building, everyone told them not to waste their time. 

It was a money pit, they’d go broke trying to fix it, others had tried and failed, people said, but had a vision for the 150-year old building on the corner of Maine and Pleasant streets.

“I don’t know if they saw what this could be,” he said of the naysayers.

Brunswick’s Lemont Building, seen in the late 1800s shortly after its construction and in 2020, 150 years later. Courtesy of Aaron Turkel

Now, thanks to a combination of luck, good timing, and a lot of “blind confidence,” they are less than a month away from the official launch of a $5 million renovation of the historic building that, once completed, will feature a fully restored meeting hall and event space on the second floor, as well as five refurbished luxury apartment units. 

The 14,000-square-foot Lemont Building, built in 1870, is, according to local historian and former teacher Richard Snow, “a historical giant on Maine Street with memories so rich that it dwarfs all others.” 

Named after Adam Lemont, a prominent businessman involved in lumber, shipbuilding and trade and the president of the Brunswick Maine Insurance Company and the Union National Bank, the building was “clearly built to make a statement,” according to the National Register of Historic Places Registration form for the Brunswick Commercial Historic District. 

The Lemont Building has been home to more than one secret fraternal organization over the years (with secret rooms to prove it, Snow said). The Freemasons left in 1902 and Knights of Pythias, who took over in 1905, held onto the space until it was finally sold in 2005, though it hadn’t been used by the organization for decades. 

The grand Lemont Hall, rumored to fit 800 people, has hosted speakers including Joshua Chamberlain and Frederick Douglas. For years, before the old town hall was built, it was the site of Brunswick High School’s graduations and other local events and political gatherings. The first phonograph seen in Brunswick was on display in the hall for 10 cents a person. 

Downstairs, Allen’s Drug Store, Smith Photo Shop and the College Bookstore set up shop.

The building was eventually sold to Sylvia Wyler in 2005, though by the time Wyler’s closed earlier this year, the store had been there for almost 30 years.

The Lemont Building in the 1960s, home to the College Bookstore, Allen Drug Store and Smith Photo Shop. Courtesy of Aaron Turkel

In a history of the building commissioned by Wyler in 2017, Snow wrote that the building is “is the last remaining vestige of a “Golden Age” for a sense  of community in the downtown,” and remains “a stately grand edifice seemingly immune from any attempt to erase its colorful and important role in Brunswick’s Story.”

Turkel and Vauban purchased the building, known more recently as the Wyler’s Building, valued at about $681,000, in October 2019 for $775,000, according to property records.

They quickly transformed the lower level from one huge bay back into three separate storefronts now occupied by Maine Street Steak and Oyster, Grampa’s Garden, and, as of earlier this fall, the Lemont Block Collective, a sort of maker’s market of local artisans curated by Vauban. 

But it’s the extensive restoration work planned for the upper levels that most excites Turkel. 

The upper levels have been untouched for, at best guess, almost half a century. Items scattered throughout the rooms — an early model electric stove, a box of leather shoes, dozens of volumes of ledgers and other documents from both the Knights and Sisters of Pythias, a tiny bird skeleton — stamp the cavernous upper floors with a distinct feel of an era gone by. 

Turning the space into five luxury apartment units while preserving the historical significance of the building is no small task, especially when factoring in some of the big ticket required additions like a second exit, a sprinkler system and an elevator— pieces that Turkel thinks are largely responsible for scaring off other developers in the past.

It’s a huge job for anyone but it’s possible, Turkel said, with assistance from the state and federal Historic Tax Credit programs, Bath Savings Institution and Coastal Enterprises Inc. 

The Maine Historic Tax Credit incentivizes developers to renovate income-producing historic buildings and spur economic development by offering a tax credit of 25% (or 34% for affordable housing) of the cost of historic improvements of a building that is a “certified historic structure.” According to the 2020 Maine Historic Tax Credit Economic Impacts report by Maine Preservation, these projects have added more than $166 million to local property tax rolls, including $17 million in new property tax revenue since 2010.

The program has generated $3 million more in state and local tax revenues that it has cost in tax credits and it is estimated that the net economic benefit will double to at least $6 million annually by 2022, according to the report. 

A section of the building repaired by the Freemasons, who turned the upper floors of the building over to the Knights of Pythias in 1905. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

Other local projects completed or in the works using the program are the Huse Memorial School and the Medanick Building, both in Bath, and Brunswick’s Mitchell Double House. 

Turkel and Vauban are working with historical architects Barba and Wheelock, and Peter Warren in Freeport will manage construction. Turkel estimates that work will be completed by the end of 2021. 

“We have learned a lot,” he said. “It’s trial by fire.”

The price has not yet been set for the one and two-bedroom apartments, but it will admittedly have to be relatively high due to the cost of construction. They aren’t targeting a particular demographic, though empty nesters or up and coming professionals are likely to be good fits, but rather a type of person— someone with an appreciation for the historical significance of the building. 

Turkel, 35, admits that a lot of people aren’t in the position to take on a project like the Lemont Block. A Maine native, he is returning from LA, where he and Vauban were “able to cut our teeth” and make some money to invest in a project. 

It would be easier, he said, to start with a blank slate and take on a new construction project like the 16 market rate apartment units planned for above the Tontine Mall across the street, but Turkel is invested in restoring the “historic gem.” 

“A lot of new construction is so cookie cutter,” he said. 

Instead, he wants a place, like the Lemont Building, “that has a soul and a story.”

This story has been corrected. An earlier version misstated Cleo Vauban’s last name. 

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