MONMOUTH — Like a jewel of great value, the remarkable Cumston Hall is treasured by its owners — the residents of Monmouth.
Fortunately, it’s a treasure they choose to share, and the many community uses it now serves and the many people who have experienced its beauty and uniqueness multiply the building’s worth.
The efforts of numerous benefactors brought Cumston Hall back from a period of deterioration several decades ago. Now, townspeople of all ages and visitors from all over enjoy the results of some exceptionally effective renovation.
Dennis Price, president of Friends of Cumston Hall, said “a community of groups” has been responsible for the building’s renaissance. In addition to the organization he leads, there’s the Cumston Hall trustees, a number of theatrical groups including The Theater at Monmouth (designated “The Shakespearean Theater of Maine” by the Maine Legislature in 1975), the Monmouth Community Players, and “Smash,” which presents shows by home-schooled children. The building also houses the Monmouth Public Library. Local schools use if often, and a variety of town functions take place there.
“It has to be used in order for the resurgence it is now undergoing to continue,” Price said.
A few days ago, fifth-graders from Monmouth Middle School enjoyed an annual tour of their town’s historic landmark. They marveled at the ornate small-scale opera house, where they had an opportunity to try out acting skills on the stage. They saw the reception room, which contains furniture original to its opening 112 years ago, and they visited the “caucus room,” where generations of Monmouth residents met for town business.
Cumston Hall owes its remarkable history to the benevolence of a local doctor and to the extraordinary talents of one man who was involved in every step of its creation.
Dr. Charles M. Cumston amazed the local people at a town meeting in 1899 when he announced his intention to give a new town hall to the community. He asked a talented young artist, Harry Hayman Cochrane, to design the hall, which was constructed at a cost of nearly $20,000. It was the first building Cochran had ever designed, but it turned out to be a masterpiece of Romanesque revival and Queen Anne-style architecture. Visitors are awed by its beauty more than a century later.
Cochrane’s touch of genius extends to much more than the stunning main building with its stained-glass windows all around it and up the sides of a tower on its right side. A smaller octagonal building at the left, attached by an arched breezeway, emphasizes the asymmetrical design.
According to a history of the building published by the Cumston Public Library, Cochrane was given free rein over the project. “Cochrane transformed the proposed town hall into a grand Romanesque Revival structure with opera hall, library, caucus room and town office all in one,“ it said. “He designed and executed the plaster ornamentation, the stained-glass windows, the stenciling and murals, the molding of the exterior and interior wood trim, and the color schemes. To cap his achievement, for dedication day in 1900, he composed the music and conducted the orchestra for the event.”
Cochrane’s overall lifetime accomplishments are astounding. Over a period of 60 years, he was commissioned to decorate about 400 public buildings in Maine and New England. They included churches, parish halls, convents, banks and courthouses. Perhaps Cochrane’s most spectacular mural project would be the 1927 decoration of the Kora Shrine Temple in Lewiston. There, his floor-to-ceiling murals of exciting Arabic scenes with Masonic themes surround the ceremonial halls.
The history of Cumston Hall also stated, “Much of the Cumston theater’s charm is due to the cherubic frescoes Cochrane himself painted on the ceiling, and to his carving and hand-molded plaster work on the walls, boxes and proscenium arch.”
Restoration of that small-scale opera house of 250 seats has been key to Cumston Hall’s revival. Tony Castro and Company of New Gloucester did extensive restoration of plaster, wall decoration and the art work.
Staging was placed above the balcony so the color and detail of the elaborate ceiling fresco could be brought back to life. The original wall design was uncovered when door trim was removed, and now the ornate scroll work has been returned in place of some drab leaf and vine ornamentation that had been painted over it.
Buddy Floyd, steward of the hall, knows all the details of the restoration projects, including the additions to the structure in later years. The library is in modern quarters, there’s an elevator to the theater level. Restrooms are updated, a functional basement area offers space for town voting and other meetings, and there are new heating and air conditioning capabilities.
Floyd also has a ghost story or two, which seems altogether essential for such an old and illustrious structure. Backstage, the dark recesses of years ago remain. Steep and narrow stairways lead between levels, and the walls speak via dozens of pencil and chalk signatures by actors who passed through there over many years.
Floyd has heard footsteps he could not account for, and paranormal investigators have visited to check things out. Floyd said they found nothing, but assured him any specters would have only friendly intentions.
For many people, a first memory of Cumston Hall would be performances by the American Savoyards in the 1950s. For several years, that group of thespians presented the full range of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The theater went into disrepair for the next two decades, but the work begun in the 1970s has brought it back to showcase quality.