Heather White, center, a K-12 art teacher at Vinalhaven School, stands with sophomore Emilie Osgood, left, and senior Shyanne Warren outside the Star of Hope, where Robert Indiana lived and died and which is hosting a student art exhibition amid a massive structural renovation. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

VINALHAVEN — Everything Emilie Osgood and Shyanne Warren know about the artist Robert Indiana, they learned from their art teachers in school or from rumors growing up on Vinalhaven, where Indiana lurked as the island’s most famous, if elusive, resident. But not once did either of these high school students, ages 15 and 18, respectively, ever actually see Indiana in person.

“I wouldn’t know what he looked like if he walked by,” said Shyanne, a senior at the Vinalhaven School. “The way he chose to live in there was so crazy.”

She and Emilie, a sophomore, spoke while standing in front of the newly renovated Star of Hope, the former Odd Fellows Lodge that Indiana – the pop artist famous for his “LOVE” design in the 1960s and “HOPE” many years later – purchased for $10,000 in the late 1970s and turned into his home, and castle, for the last 40 years of his life. When he died there in May 2018 at age 89, the famously private artist was the subject of scandalous civil litigation alleging copyright infringement and fraud, and swirling rumors he had been isolated against his will amid squalid living conditions.

Not quite three years later, there’s a settlement pending on the legal front, and the Star of Hope has been transformed from a dark, rotting building into one full of light – and hope. Once covered by heavy wooden shutters that Indiana painted with the colors of the American flag after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the south-facing front windows have been replaced and are now open so people can see inside. And on the inside are the collective artworks, not of the mysterious man who occupied this place for so long, but of 70 or so student artists from the K-12 island school, whose work is on view as a window display until early April. At that time, students of art teacher Heather White will hang a new exhibition featuring the art of another 70 students.

“The house has been inaccessible for so long,” said White, “it was sort of erased from your mind. It hasn’t factored into any sort of daily life out here for so long.”

Emilie, for one, is thrilled to discover the old building, which has dominated the physical landscape of Vinalhaven’s Main Street for nearly 150 years, if not its social history. “This place was always boarded up and just here. I really don’t know much about the Star of Hope, so it’s cool that it’s showing artwork and people can actually see it,” she said. “Anyone in the community walking by or driving by can see in the windows now.”

In addition to her and Shyanne, students Myra Mills, Hope Cluff and Gracey Warren helped hang the artwork in the Star of Hope. White said the students are swelling with pride over the public reception of the student-art exhibition, which has always been open to the public but inside the school. “At night, it’s all lit up. It looks like you are walking by a gallery in Portland,” she said. “They feel like they are part of something bigger.”

A student art exhibition hangs just inside the windows of the Star of Hope, the home of the late Robert Indiana. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The student art show is the first public use in at least a half-century of what had been an active community building before Indiana arrived, and likely an indication of how it will be used in the future. It is now owned by the Star of Hope Foundation, a nonprofit entity that Indiana created to carry forward his legacy. The foundation, which owns three other island properties once owned by Indiana, has stabilized the building, which was at serious risk of collapse, and is in the process of planning its long-term use.

The foundation has the tricky balance of honoring Indiana’s vision for a museum of his art with the community’s desire for public space. Based on a 2020 survey of 256 year-round and seasonal residents, people are split on the best use of the building, but more are interested in creating a center for arts education or a public meeting space than a museum, and there’s as much interest in establishing an artist-residency program as a museum.

Further complicating the issue, many residents surveyed didn’t particularly like Indiana and are not enthusiastic about his presence lingering. Among the 33 percent of survey respondents who said it was not important for Indiana’s artwork and collection to remain on the island, 31 percent cited a dislike of the artist and another 27 percent said the island, accessible by a 75-minute ferry ride from Rockland, could not accommodate the visitors a museum would attract.

The foundation will announce its plans in June. A settlement ending most of the litigation, and determining the how the Star of Hope Foundation will be funded, has been signed and should take effect in mid-May. The settlement agreement is expected to remain under seal and out of public view.

Kris Davidson, a member of the Star of Hope Foundation board, stands near temporary support structures in the home of the late Robert Indiana during a tour of the massive renovation project. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

When asked if Indiana’s former home would function as a museum, Kris Davidson, an island resident, real estate agent and one of three members of the Star of Hope Foundation board, replied, “How do you define museum? It will be a place people will feel welcome in, and it will be open to the public,” she said.

When Indiana lived here, the Star of Hope was generally neither welcoming nor open to the island’s 1,000 or so year-round residents; the summer population is four times that number. Indiana occasionally opened his heavy wooden doors to the community in the years following his move from New York, but he become more private with time. Davidson recalls that Indiana boarded up his windows in the 1980s or 1990s. He did so to guard against vandalism, after sustaining broken windows during his early years as a newcomer. He called the broken windows part of “initiation” to becoming a year-round island resident.

The Star of Hope Lodge was founded in 1874 as the local Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and members met above an existing Main Street retail store. In 1884, they purchased the store and adjacent building, and joined them together by adding a mansard-roofed third floor and creating one of the largest buildings on the waterfront. The retail stores, including a drugstore, remained active on the street level well into the 20th century.

Casey Leonard, co-owner of Rockport Building Partners, calls attention to an original window pane that was rehung at one of the Star of Hope’s front entryways. The building was originally two separate, two-story structures that were joined at the center and expanded upward. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In the recent stabilization effort, the crew from Rockport Building Partners, the contractor, was able to place glass original to the drugstore, with the words Vinal’s News Stand, in refurbished front windows. White, who has lived on the island 18 years, said she never knew the panels, with their peeling red, white and blue paint, covered storefront windows from a long-ago island business. Unveiling those windows was like opening a page of island history, she said.

Davidson said the community has embraced the student art show and the bright, clean appearance of the building. The old wooden doors are the same, but they’ve been painted red instead of black. The building has new siding and a new roof – and much more that’s not visible from the street. “The community response has been so positive – and only positive. It’s a home run,” she said.

Larry Sterrs, chairman of the Star of Hope Foundation, said he couldn’t provide specific budget information, but said the foundation budgeted between $2.7 million and $2.9 million in 2019 for five years of work on the Star of Hope and three other buildings, and both the budget and project are on track. That figure included money for engineering, architecture and all analyses, as well as the first phase of completed work at the Star of Hope and small projects at other properties.

Leonard gives a tour of the top floor of the Star of Hope, which was formerly an Odd Fellows Hall. A 300- to 500-pound chandelier had hung from the center of the room, but was meticulously removed and stored before renovations began, Leonard said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine Preservation listed the Star of Hope as one of Maine’s most endangered properties in 2019. That is when Casey Leonard, co-owner of Rockport Building Partners, got involved. Sterrs invited him out to take a look, and beckoned him up to the second floor with the warning “if you dare. That’s how unstable it felt,” Leonard said. The building was less than a decade from “imminent collapse. If we had waited, it might have been too late. It was that bad. No joke. It was in awful shape, with a lot of water coming in and a lot of pigeons. It was very sad to see. But we got the building stable so it wouldn’t fall into Main Street – and it was heading in that direction, literally.”

All of Indiana’s art, archives and personal belongings were removed soon after he died and remain in mainland storage, their ownership and distribution to be determined by the settlement’s sealed terms. The Indiana estate, including the Star of Hope, other island properties and his artwork, could be valued at as much as $100 million, by some estimates.

The Star of Hope was created by joining two existing buildings and was top-heavy and weak. It was strong in its foundation, which was laid with granite from the island quarries, but was constructed with insufficient load-bearing vertical beams resulting from how the two original buildings were joined. Because of decorative eaves and a failing gutter system, water backed up and poured into the building from the top of the second floor on down for decades, degrading the wooden knuckles that connected the third floor and roof structure to the walls below.

“Those knuckles were at risk of buckling – and soon,” Leonard said.

Working with engineers and architects, Rockport Building Partners stabilized the building from the outside in, to keep intact as much of the internal plaster and Odd Fellows-era decorative details as possible. All the architectural elements, including the shelves and cabinets from the ground-floor stores that Indiana used in his studios and for storage, were removed, packed, documented and stored, and will be reinstalled. The same is true of a massive chandelier in the third floor chamber, where the Odd Fellows convened their secret meetings and where Indiana created a mini-museum with his art. “We put our heart and soul into this project,” Leonard said. “We gave the building and Mr. Indiana the care both deserve.”

Leonard points out the temporary structures that support the Star of Hope’s outer walls, which were in danger of collapse from water damage and poor design. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The sills have been replaced, and there are steel rafters and headers on the south side, as well as new 6-by-6 vertical posts running from the foundation to the attic. The east and west walls, which are both extremely close to neighboring buildings, have been rebuilt with fire-resistant materials. The gutter system is now internal, and there are new windows throughout.

Temporary, interior load-bearing walls, built to stabilize the house during the project, remain in place. When the board decides how the Star of Hope will function – as a residency, community space, museum or combination of all that or more – the work will move inside, and that work will include an upgrade of all electrical and plumbing systems.

Longtime residents remember with regret losing the building next to the Star of Hope, known as Memorial Hall, another massive Main Street structure torn down in 1973 and replaced by the current nondescript post office, Davidson said. Memorial Hall and the Star of Hope were reminders of the prosperity of Vinalhaven’s granite industry.

She said community members were alarmed when they learned another island landmark was at risk. “Those of us who live here knew it was bad and knew it suffered from deferred maintenance. But no one had any idea how bad it really was,” she said.

Now that the Star of Hope has been reclaimed, the community that had been kept out is eager to get back in.

White affixes name and title placards to artwork within the Star of Hope. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

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