Forgotten arsenal to be reborn

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AUGUSTA – People strolling along a riverside trail stop and marvel: Across the Kennebec River is a granite wall whose crisp, straight lines stretch for 1,000 feet. Even long-time residents of Maine’s capital city never knew it was there.

For generations, this architectural jewel that dates to Maine’s early years as a state was hidden by weeds and brush that grew wild and spread over the huge stone slabs.

Not only are the wall and granite wharf at its center back in view, but a long-neglected arsenal just behind it that was built in 1828 – and is now recognized as nationally significant – stands on the verge of revitalization.

The long-abandoned compound known as the Kennebec Arsenal figures to be the focal point of a development of housing, a restaurant, upscale shops, offices and conference space on a sloping site within view of the state Capitol just across the river.

While plans aren’t complete, developers who specialize in preserving history envision a new village on a site that was long an active military post, said Michael Duguay, economic development director for the city of 18,500.

Augusta is working with Tom Niemann, a partner with former NBA basketball star Christian Laettner in Blue Devil Ventures, a Durham, N.C.-based community development firm.

The Maine Legislature recognized the project’s potential to bring new vitality to an overlooked corner of the capital. A few weeks ago, lawmakers authorized tax credits of $500,000 a year for four years to help solidify Niemann’s financing package.

Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, who led the push for the tax credits, said taxpayers stand to regain long-term benefits after the properties go on the tax rolls in four years. Also, taxpayers will realize savings from the project because the state no longer will be responsible for maintaining the aging structures.

“The state is now paying $250,000 a year just to keep the buildings heated and from falling apart,” said Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. “Not only are the buildings historic, but the parade grounds are historic.”

The Kennebec Arsenal was first authorized by a bill signed by President John Quincy Adams in 1827 – a mere 10 days after Augusta was declared Maine’s capital.

Granite mined from the neighboring city of Hallowell was used to construct 10 buildings that originally dotted the 40-acre site, including the main arsenal, a pair of magazines, officers’ quarters, a guard house, barracks for enlisted men, a stable and shops for wheelwrights, blacksmiths and armorers.

Other old arsenals exist in a few states, but they have been modified over the years to obliterate their original design, said Elaine Clark, who was involved in the restoration as the state’s overseer of public properties.

While the Kennebec Arsenal’s main building shows signs of age, such as boarded-up doors, chipped paint, broken windows and missing sections of eaves, the granite structure itself is as solid, square and intact as it was when the cornerstone was laid in 1828.

For years the main building housed patients from the state mental hospital, which occupied an adjacent site for more than a century. Other buildings were used for storage, temporary housing and other purposes.

But for at least 35 years, the main building has been “vacant, neglected, deteriorating,” said Clark.

Lost through the years was the architectural significance of the late Federal Period architecture of the main building, “the most intact 19th Century arsenal in the country,” said Clark.

Also obscured over time was an important component of the arsenal site: the riverside retaining wall and wharf.

“People didn’t even know there was a retaining wall or wharf there,” said Clark.

Its restoration won a prestigious $300,000 Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service, which was matched by $300,000 in state funding.

The arsenal rose as a border dispute with Canada set war sabers rattling, and it was kept supplied after its 1831 completion.

The main arsenal held nearly 143,000 muskets, the two magazines housed 854 barrels of powder, and munitions were produced in large quantities.

The war with Canada fizzled, but the arrival of the U.S.-Mexican War in the 1840s had the arsenal booming again. The Maine compound sent ammunition and rockets to the front while storing nearly 2 million pounds of gunpowder, thousands of cannon shot and tons of lead for bullets.

During the Civil War, the Army built two temporary buildings to make paper cartridges. Extra guards were put on duty out of concern that Confederate guerrillas might sneak in from Canada and raid the arsenal, according to a 1997 history by Marius Peladeau and Roger Reed.

Among the arsenal’s commandants was Oliver Otis Howard, a Civil War hero from Maine who went on to create Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The outpost’s importance flagged through the latter 1800s. While some supplies were sent to the Spanish-American War front, the Kennebec Arsenal became outmoded and was reduced to a skeleton staff. In 1905, the Army turned the site over to the state.

A combination of state leases, private funding and tax breaks are needed to carry off the rest of the site’s restoration and development. Niemann is willing to put $12 million into upgrading the long-neglected buildings and other $12 million into condominiums in one of the structures, said Clark.

Planning is only in its beginning stages, but developers are looking at putting 11 apartments in the main arsenal. What had served as the commandant’s quarters could become a “showplace’ home, said Duguay. A gate house at the edge of the site that dates to 1837 could turn into a smaller restaurant or coffee shop. Farther back, a hillside building featuring a glass-lined turret would become offices.

The next phase of the project – construction of new buildings – would be carried out in a way that would not disturb the historical setting, said Duguay.

Developers hope to get started on the renovations this summer or fall.



On the Net:

Niemann Capital Management: www.ncm.net/home.html

Blue Devil Ventures: www.bluedevilventures.com

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