By Rachel Morin
I have always loved beautiful, old historic buildings and have taken photos of them all over Lewiston-Auburn and in many near and far destinations during my travels. Something just grabs my heart when I see these buildings from yesteryear and a calmer time.
The Lewiston United Baptist Church was one of my favorite buildings locally. I was saddened when the parishioners were forced to leave, unable financially to restore and maintain the deteriorating building. The multi-hued stone façade was spectacular. I admired the old church every time I drove by—the beautiful old stones were simply magnificent.
I went to many a Christmas Fair there over the years. I enjoyed listening to the organ as Bob Caldwell, longtime organist, played in stocking feet so he could “feel the music” that much better.
One treasured memory is when the renowned Baptist minister and theologian at Harvard Divinity School, the Rev. Peter Gomes, was given permission to practice on the organ at United Baptist Church when he was a student at Bates College. He died February 28 of this year at 68.
The landmark church, built in the English Gothic style, was constructed in 1922 at the cost of $178,000. The United Baptist Church congregation was formed in 1917 by the merger of three smaller churches: Main Street Free Baptist at 250 Main St.; Pine Street Free Baptist, fondly known as “Little Pine;” and First Baptist Church.
The Free Baptist Church on the 250 Main St. site was torn down, and the new stone church, the United Baptist Church, rose in its place. The 70-foot-high bell tower was designed after the Bates College Chapel. Of historical significance in the three-tiered tower was the original clock with three black wrought-iron faces, each eight feet in diameter, which was previously housed in the steeple of the Free Baptist Church.
Also transferred to the new church was the Henry N. Hooper Bell, out of Boston, dating back to 1856. Hooper was an apprentice of Paul Revere; Hooper’s foundry later originated from the Revere Foundry.
During the construction in the summer of 1921, members of the three merged Baptist congregations worshipped at Bates College Chapel and also attended the Park Street and Hammond Street Methodist Churches. The cornerstone was laid by Dr. A. W. Anthony, a former professor at Bates College, who was a generous benefactor along with Mrs. Anthony and his daughter, Miss Kate J. Anthony.
A copper box (containing church history and records and coins dated 1921) was placed beneath the cornerstone. The beautiful new edifice was dedicated on Sunday, November 26, 1922 with much celebration and speeches.
The United Baptist Church has long been on the annual list of Maine’s most endangered historic properties. Gravely imperiled by years of deferred maintenance, the Maine Preservation Magazine in the winter of 2009-10 predicted that any buyer would most likely demolish the building.
In recent years, the church’s membership dwindled to less than 50. The building’s rapid deterioration, safety issues and financial difficulties led the remaining members to vacate and merge with the New Hope Bible Church, which occupies the former Sons of Italy Hall at 541 College St. It is now the Unity Bible Church.
When the United Baptist Church went on the market, I hoped someone might rescue and restore the church to its former glory. But no one came forward.
I spent two mornings doing research on the building with Rick Michaud, member and manager of the real estate firm that bought the property, R W Michaud Properties, LLC of Lewiston. I learned the small congregation had given much thought into evaluating the church’s physical condition before reluctantly placing it up for sale.
An extensive review of the United Baptist Church, complete with photos documenting the severe deterioration and maintenance issues, had been conducted in 2006 by Taylor Engineering Associates of Auburn. The firm’s report included each photo accompanied by a lengthy explanation of what was documented in the photo. Extensive water and structural damage was rampant. Huge cracks were everywhere, some as deep as eight inches.
Photos showed the building was in danger of having stones fall onto passersby, and the bell tower was leaning forward.
The cover letter to this review, dated Oct. 6, 2006, recommended that the church members immediately cordon off an area at the front of the church to protect people from possible injury should one of the buttresses fail. The buttresses were secured by year’s end with strappings, wire mesh, anchor bolts and angle iron by Stone Age Masonry, Inc. of Sabattus. But the firm cautioned the congregation that it was only a temporary fix.
The cost of restoration would be well over a million dollars. Future upkeep, which was outlined in the engineering report, would be unaffordable.
Newspaper articles from as far back as 1980 showed that maintenance and deterioration problems with the building were ongoing. But it does not diminish the heartache and sadness of seeing a beautiful, historic landmark disappear from our midst. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the times.
When no buyers came forward, congregation members approached Michaud, as they knew he owns eight parcels of property abutting the church. It made sense to contact him, since it would create a better opportunity for Michaud to redevelop the collective properties. He has no immediate plans for this.
The property had been marketed as a land sale with a building that needed to be demolished. The Lewiston Historic Preservation Review Board had granted a Certificate of Appropriateness for demolition of the building due to extensive structural damage of the stonework. The building was posted in February, 2008 for demolition and a public legal notice appeared in the Lewiston Sun Journal.
Many furnishings were salvaged; some were not. The revered Skinner 1920 organ with close to 1,600 pipes was saved and sold by the congregation, as was the clock mechanism. The oak pews, all in a semi-circular design, concave, curved and connected to each other, are stored by the demolition firm of St. Laurent & Son Excavating of Lewiston. Their future use is unknown.
The six stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes, created and installed by Whittemore Associates of Boston in 1947, were carefully and meticulously removed, crated and catalogued by the Maine Art Glass Studio of Lisbon Falls. They are now in storage with an undetermined future use and are owned by Michaud. He also has the antique Henry N. Hooper Bell and the three black wrought-iron clock faces.
Michaud, appreciating the historic significance of all church literature, documents and a massive ledger documenting financial contributions left behind, has carefully preserved it all.
Some of the amber glass surrounding the stained glass windows was salvaged by artist Jim Nutting, owner of the Maine Art Glass Studio. He is creating jewelry boxes for former congregation members.
Unfortunately, the beautiful stones were not salvageable. During the demolition, the stones were unable to be separated from the mortar and had to be taken down by machinery. The Bell Tower masonry was removed manually by workers, but these stones were also unsalvageable.
A local developer came to look at the stones on the ground and turned away disappointed, as the labor costs to chisel the mortar from the stones and bricks would have been cost prohibitive. I had learned that the church building appeared to be a stone edifice, but was actually made of two layers of red bricks with a layer of stone on the exterior.
During the waning hours of the last day, cars and trucks lined up at the Citgo gas station, facing the Bates Street side of the church. Occupants sat in their vehicles with the heaters running, keeping a vigil and paying their respects during the final moments.
Darkness moved in and the demolition continued without benefit of lights, except for the headlights on the excavators. The next morning, only two steel posts connected by a steel beam stood as silent sentinels over the remains of a once proud church.
In all my research and talking with dozens of former members of the United Baptist Church, I have yet to learn where the stones originated and what they were made of. Maybe some TCT readers might know?
Michaud says he knows of only two other buildings in the State of Maine that have similar stones and colorings. These buildings are the Bates College Chapel and St. John’s Catholic Church in Brunswick. The Rev. Arthur Kuehn of Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, the pastor from 1977-1988, has provided some good leads, which I will look into.
I spent an afternoon recently with Ruth Krauth of Lewiston, a 70-plus-year member of the Lewiston United Baptist Church. We looked at a book of memories she compiled, spanning decades of her beloved church. Filled with photos of events and members, it was like a family history, the members were so closely knit.
She shared her journal writings with me. One prophetic sentence, written so many years ago during a difficult split within the church, leapt out of the page: “On the day of reckoning which will surely come, I can see in my vision of the future, a pile of rubble where a church once stood.” —Ruth Krauth