Cumston inspired youth

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In the early 1950s, my parents treated my brother and me to many unforgettable summer nights when we attended the American Savoyards’ performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at Monmouth’s fantastic Cumston Hall. I am sure young boys would not develop a lifelong fascination with those Victorian musicals if it had not been reinforced by a spectacular setting for the shows. That setting was Cumston Hall’s unique and ornate small-scale opera house.

It was the multi-talented Harry Hayman Cochrane who built and decorated that hall. While such an accomplishment is remarkable by itself, Cochrane’s work over his lifetime (1860 to 1946) is astonishing. 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.

Monmouth was Cochrane’s hometown. He attended Monmouth Academy and he grew up there under the guidance of his grandparents. He married Ida Lorena Gott of Monmouth in 1887.

In 1899, it was announced by Dr. Charles Cumston, longtime headmaster of Boston English High School who had retired to Monmouth, that he would give his town a community hall which would house town offices, a town meeting hall, a public library, and an auditorium. Cumston entrusted the entire job to Cochrane, even though Cochrane had never designed a building before.

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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.”

The history said, “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.”

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.

These examples of Cochrane’s artistic genius are only a part of his exceptional talent. A story in the May 1, 1949, Portland Sunday Telegram Magazine describes many more achievements of this man.

In 1898, he won first prize in a competition to decorate the convention halls and rooms for the huge Knights Templar triennial conclave in Pittsburgh.

His most famous painting may be “The Man on Horseback,” which depicts Bishop Francis Asbury, a colonial circuit riding preacher, on a horse struggling to cross a stream in the forest. It is said the preacher once spoke from the doorway of a Monmouth home to a gathering of 6,000 people.

Cochrane wrote a two-volume history of Monmouth and Wales, and in 1914, Bates College awarded him an honorary Master of Arts degree.

Many churches, including Methodist churches in Leeds and Monmouth, have murals on the sanctuary walls. Auburn’s First Universalist Church of Auburn does, as does the High Street Methodist Church where my family attended services for many years.

A true Renaissance man, he was a prolific poet, and an accomplished singer, composer, and conductor. He was appointed in 1920 by Gov. Carl E. Milliken to be chairman of the Maine Centennial Committee. That year he was commissioned to design the State of Maine Centennial Coin. He went to Washington, D.C., to receive from the U.S. Mint, still hot, the first of those half-dollars.

Cochrane also wrote and produced a motion picture called “The Romance of Maine,” and his hymn, “Prince of Peace,” is still sung in Monmouth churches.

In addition to all this, he established his own photographic studio in Gardiner and it is said he worked with the Stanley brothers of Stanley Steamer fame when they developed dry plate photography.

Fortunately, Cochrane’s remarkable Cumston Hall has been fully restored and it is home to Shakespearean and other plays by the Theater at Monmouth each summer and by Monmouth Community Players and others through the year.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to dasargent@maine.com.

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