The Chocolate Church has been a quintessential part of Bath’s skyline since its 1847 construction. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

The Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath contracted with an architecture firm to assess the state of the 174-year-old gothic church the arts center calls home.

The brown gothic-style church looms over Washington Street in Bath and its tower is an imposing part of the city’s skyline, but the chipping paint hints at larger issues hiding inside the arts hub.

Chocolate Church Arts Center Executive Director William Lederer said the architectural assessment, which should be finished in July, is a necessary step before the nonprofit can launch any efforts to repair or update the building with the nearly $50,000 grant the center was awarded in April 2020.

“What we will need to do in order to fully renovate that building is a major capital campaign, and as of today, we don’t feel prepared to do that for a few reasons,” said Lederer. “It has been close to a decade since any real, in-depth assessment was done on the condition of the building. As a result, we don’t know the extent of what needs to be done and how much that will cost, and that cost piece is incredibly important.”

The nearly $50,000 REvitalizeME sub-grant was awarded by the Maine Development Foundation’s Maine Downtown Center Program in partnership with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. The grant program, funded by the Paul Bruhn Historic Revitalization Grants Program of the National Park Service, supports the rehabilitation of historic properties throughout the state.

Portland-based architectural firm Barba + Wheelock Architects is in the process of conducting the architectural assessment on the Chocolate Church. Lederer said the assessment is covered by the grant, but will cost about one-third of the overall grant award.

Though a thorough assessment of the former church hasn’t been done since 2006, Barba + Wheelock Architects Preservation Engineer Liz Reynolds said the fact that the nonprofit has any sort of structural assessment done previously is unusual.

“They’ve done some stabilization of the tower, but a lot of the things in that report haven’t been able to get addressed,” said Reynolds. “A big challenge for these historic building owners, especially when they’re nonprofits, is that they don’t have the funds to do all the maintenance and restoration efforts that they’d like to do. These grants take a huge step in the right direction in terms of getting them what they need to have the work done.”

Lederer has a laundry list of issues with the building that need to be addressed. Weatherproofing the building and adding insulation are at the top of that list.

“If you look at the building, there are pieces of siding missing and the building isn’t completely watertight,” he said.

Built in 1847, the church is almost entirely uninsulated, which leads to a hefty heating bill and limits the space’s performance season. The lack of insulation causes the heat to leak out of the building, and the heat that stays in the building rises to the church’s tower and away from the audience.

After the art center’s annual Christmas event, Lederer said the performance space is closed until mid-March to save on heating costs. In December, the nonprofit pays about $1,000 to heat the 200,000 cubic feet of the main performance area in the body of the church.

Sunlight shines through a wall in part of the Chocolate Church’s tower where a window and piece of siding have been haphazardly replaced with plywood. Photo courtesy of Liz Reynolds

“We try to have as many shows as we can, but it’s an expensive building to operate,” said Lederer. “If you look at our heating bill, I think we heat our parking lot and part of Washington Street. We do as much as we can to keep everyone in the theater comfortable, but it’s not efficient at all. It costs an incredible amount of money to heat that space.”

Reynolds said the lack of insulation was the first thing she noticed that needs to be addressed.

“Right from going into the church, you can tell there’s a problem with the insulation because it’s cold and drafty,” said Reynolds. “One of the big focuses is taking a look at the exterior and seeing what repairs can be done to make sure the building weathertight and fully insulated.”

While the arts center doesn’t host shows in the main theater in January through March or July through August, Lederer says the center tries to make up for the lost revenue by holding shows elsewhere.

In the summer, the center moves performances to an outdoor space at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath’s South End. In the winter, shows are held in a smaller annex of the church, which only seats 100 people compared to the main stage’s 300-seat capacity.

Additionally, the church’s tower has a “slight lean to it,” said Lederer, though it has been stabilized and isn’t a safety risk.

Lastly, Lederer said he’d like to make the building more accessible to those with mobility limitations. The building does comply with ADA regulations, but, “there are areas in the building that are difficult for someone with mobility issues to reach.”

“One thing that’s often overlooked is accessibility, but from talking with the arts center, they want the space to be welcoming to everyone in the community,” said Reynolds. “Some of the bigger ticket items like structural repairs tend to take precedence in terms of the long-term viability of a building, so accessibility, unfortunately, tends to be in the background.”

Though the structural assessment of the building began well over a year after the grant was first awarded in April 2020, Lederer said he’s thankful the arts center could delay the assessment to focus fully on how to remain operational in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Lederer said he’s thrilled to take this first step on the long road in refurbishing the building.

“We feel privileged to help them achieve their goals and take them from the assessment stage to the construction stage so they can protect their building and the important landmark it is in Bath,” said Reynolds. “We’re hoping that this project will help preserve the building for many years so the Chocolate Church Arts Center can continue its important community involvement.”

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