Renovations Reveal Bones and Secrets of Maine’s Oldest Opera House

GARDINER — If the oldest opera house in the state still has any secrets, they’ll be hard to find.

More than six months into the multimillion-dollar project to redo the historic downtown Gardiner building and its 400-plus seat theater, the structure has been stripped of its bones.

Layers of paint, fabric and wood added in previous renovations are peeled back to expose brick and wood, and new bones – in the form of steel beams and the structure to house the new elevator – are added to supporting the next phase of the life cycle of the former boarding stable at 280 Water Street.

The third floor theater stage during a tour last Wednesday from Johnson Hall at 280 Water St. in downtown Gardiner. Renovation plans include expanding the stage. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I’ve given a million hits from here,” Johnson Hall executive and artistic director Michael Miclon said last week, standing on the ground floor of the building’s upper theater. “I would say when we are done there will be a balcony here and an elevator will go up there. And now I can really stand here and say, “Fuck, there’s a balcony over there and an elevator shaft right there.”

The mind-numbing part of working on a project that has taken nearly a decade to reach this point is all the work and planning required to be able to begin construction.

“I was like, ‘Are we going to (start) one day?’ For the rest of my life, (will I) say, “We’re going to start building? “That’s it,” he said, pointing to the new structures.

The plans resulting from years of work are built on thousands of details that will never be seen once the project is complete: The location of the plumbing and electrical conduit for the toilets and the sound system, the lights of the upper theater which cannot be changed from the rooftop, the orientation of the grand staircase, and the muffling of the elevator ding at the balcony level so as not to interfere with the live performance.

And some of these details only surfaced after the demolition began.

Until the building closed, the Studio Theater on the ground floor was used for shows and movies. Initially, Miclon said, very little was planned for the ground floor.

Now, in addition to the changes to the entrance, the Studio Theater is also getting a minor facelift. The ramp at the rear of the theater is removed as it does not meet the access requirements stipulated in the Americans with Disabilities Act. A ramp with a new entry point into the theater is planned.

Over the years the building has been used as an opera house, roller skating rink and a movie theater in the upper theatre.

As the layers of his identities were removed, Miclon said, other aspects of the building’s history were uncovered, including evidence of five fires and water damage. The practice at the time of the fires was to build on the damage, Miclon said, but now that damage, including some under the stage, needs to be repaired.

“It was a find of about $100,000,” he said, noting that the project’s provident fund was used to pay for it.

When fundraising for this project began more than six years ago, Miclon and his board anticipated a $4.3 million project to be completed in 2019.

Since then, a global COVID-19 pandemic with supply chain disruptions and ordinary and extraordinary inflation, as well as the revelation of the scope of work required to complete the project, have driven projected project costs up. to over $9 million, all of which have been bumped up, but there’s still a bit of a way to go.

Michael Miclon, executive and artistic director of Johnson Hall at 280 Water St., gestured toward the stage last Wednesday from the newly constructed balcony during a tour of the hall at 280 Water St. in downtown Gardiner. More than six months into a $9 million project to redo Maine’s oldest opera house, the building has been stripped of its bones. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

When he first arrived at Johnson Hall in May 2013, Miclon said he was ready to begin construction immediately. Now, he said, the goal is to have a certificate of occupancy by December 31, 2023.

But that doesn’t mean the first show at the new theater will be scheduled for January 2024. Miclon said theater staff members will need time to learn the sound systems and understand how more than 400 people will move through the building before , during and after. shows.

At that time, Gardiner will be ready to welcome new visitors, Mayor Patricia Hart said, as it does now for annual events.

Gardiner Main Street’s Swine & Stein Brewfest draws up to 1,200 people to the annual Oktoberfest celebration, and Johnson Hall’s free waterfront concert series at Gardiner Park on the Kennebec River regularly draws more of 400 people.

The underside of a new balcony, seen from behind the third-floor theater, during a tour last Wednesday of Johnson Hall at 280 Water St. in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“At the last concert of the season, we had the concert and the Art Walk and everyone found a place to park,” Hart said, noting that the city is leasing space on Water Street from Gardiner Main Street for additional parking.

In the meantime, Hart said city officials are working closely with Johnson Hall to ensure construction goes smoothly, and she anticipates that will continue when Johnson Hall reopens.

Although there is more than a year until the work is finished, Miclon said he was nostalgic to see photographs of the building as it was when he started working there and thought about what it would look like after the renovations.

“I’m glad it’s changed, but it was my home for nine years,” he said. “Now that’s funny because there are so many surprises when I say I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I didn’t know it was going to be like this. »

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