A rendering shows the planned expansion for the former St. Lawrence Arts Center on Congress Street, which will now be called The Hill Arts. Rendering by Archetype Architects of Portland, courtesy of The Hill Arts

A longtime arts nonprofit has a new name to go with a new performance venue planned for Portland’s Munjoy Hill.

The St. Lawrence Arts Center announced Wednesday that it is rebranding as The Hill Arts to better fit an expansion that will include a 400-seat theater. The organization received site plan approval from the city last month and could begin construction as soon as next year. Slowed by a lack of funding, the project has been in the works for nearly a decade.

“Since its inception 22 years ago, St. Lawrence Arts has remained rooted in the community by adopting the name of the historic church it occupied,” said Deirdre Nice, founder and executive and artistic director. “However, with the forthcoming construction of an iconic new building, rebranding to The Hill Arts reflects a natural progression of our organization and our ambitious goals. We are now positioned to be a strong collaborating partner with Portland’s performing arts organizations and schools and a venue that will attract national and international artists and performers to our vibrant city.”

The existing Parish Hall Theater, which seats approximately 100 people, will remain. Supporters said Wednesday that the expansion will fill a gap in Portland. Emily Isaacson, founder and artistic director of Classical Uprising, a nonprofit performing arts collective, said the city has a “Goldilocks situation” with venues that are either too big or too small.

“This is the kind of place that we need, not just to allow us to make art, but to allow us to be the city that we want to be,” she said. “This midsize venue in Portland will allow us to connect with our community in an intimate way but will have state-of-the-art features while allowing us to do the kind of cutting-edge, exciting productions that we are dreaming about and thinking about and seeing in other cities and want to do in our town.”

Julia Kirby, development director for The Hill Arts, said the next step will be fundraising, and the nonprofit already has secured formal gifts and commitments that make up a third of its campaign. She did not put a dollar amount on the goal, but a blurb from board member and campaign chair Jamie Isaacson on the nonprofit’s new website says it hopes to raise an additional $10 million.


“Although we’ve been a beloved and great, small, 106-seat theater, we want to show Portland and beyond that we’ve got the mettle to be a midsize auditorium supporting dozens of performing arts organizations and community partners,” Kirby said. “I think to do that, a new name and a new look was a very wise choice, to pounce on the scene and say, ‘This is where we’re going. We’re the organization that can step up and step above to really bring Portland what they need.’ Sometimes when you have that old name and what it was, people are too focused on that. We want them to come with us into this future of performing arts in Portland.”

The expansion also will have space for more children’s programs and an arts incubator for up-and-coming creative groups.

The St. Lawrence Church was built in 1897 for a congregation that had outgrown its nearby chapel (and for their new organ, which was too big for that space). In 1979, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in hopes of saving it from deterioration. The dwindling congregation sold it in 1986 to private developers, but they were unable to find a use for the former church. It was in serious disrepair when Nice purchased it in 1993 with a plan to turn it into an arts and cultural center. The nonprofit Friends of the St. Lawrence Church formed a few years later and took over ownership of the building.

The group originally hoped to save the sanctuary, but it was deemed too damaged and was torn down in 2008. The neighboring parish house remained and was renovated as a performance venue that has been used since 2001. The nonprofit then planned to build a replica of the original church, but Kirby said they decided the design was ultimately too limiting. The current plans have been in the works since 2014. The Portland Planning Board approved a site plan for a contemporary addition in 2018, but it expired. The group went back and got site plan approval again this May.

The contemporary addition will stand on the vacant lot next to the existing Gothic-style Parish Hall Theater at 76 Congress St. The new logo for The Hill Arts hung above the existing door Wednesday, and new signs outlined the building plans for passersby.

“The building’s exterior will be granite to echo the parish hall and will be paired with perforated metal siding – designed to glow at night during performances, relating to and complementing the streetscape,” said David Lloyd, principal at Archetype Architects.

The Hill Arts said that the nonprofit plans to “create green and parking congestion reduction programs through an established transit partnership with the Greater Portland Metro.”

The organization and venue’s new website is thehillarts.me, and The Hill Arts also can be found on social media platforms at @thehillartsme.

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