LEWISTON — Kevin Morissette and his fiancee were meeting at the Public Library to study for architecture exams when the beautiful brick building across the street beckoned. The sign in the window read: "For sale by owner."
He and Gabrielle Russell wanted to live downtown. Turned out, this building was The One.
They called the number, took the leap. That first year, Morissette questioned the move a few times. After a snowstorm, he had to use a sump pump to drain buckets catching leaks on the fourth floor, dangling a hose out into the alley below.
"When the weather is nice and there's an art opening, things seems like, 'Wow, this is really going to happen,'" said Morissette, 32, a Lewiston native. "In the wintertime, it's, 'Man, what did we get into? We had this cozy house.' It's the vision we hold on to."
The couple wants to be part of a renewed Lisbon Street, and it seems to be happening, slowly, one leap of faith at a time.
Once hard to imagine, more professionals are choosing to live downtown. Since 2009, five buildings have been bought with the intention of turning at least one floor into executive-style living space, according to city records.
Jules Patry, owner of DaVinci's Eatery, moved into 84 Lisbon St. with his wife, Suzanne, last June after an 18-month renovation.
"The top floor had been derelict for 40 years," he said. "It was the '70s since anybody had occupied that." It had been a 24-room boarding house with 24 "itty-bitty little bathrooms."
Part of the appeal of that particular building: an elevator shaft and an uninstalled elevator, still in the box. They live on the fourth floor and have renovated the second and third into two apartments each. A new wine shop, The Vault, is on street level.
The Patrys used to call a Lewiston colonial home. Now, he walks to work. They use a city garage for parking.
"The economics of it makes sense," Patry said. "(You) don't have to worry about all the things you associate with a house."
Diane Palian and her husband, Charles, an oral surgeon in Auburn, bought the fourth floor above the French restaurant Fuel, at 49 Lisbon St., over the winter. It's wide open, 5,000 square feet and former theater space. Wild Bill Hickok once performed there.
Charles Palian graduated from Lewiston High School and reconnected with friends after moving back from Las Vegas to be with his ailing mother.
"We tossed around the idea of just buying a home," Diane Palian said. But once her husband retires, the couple wants to spend six months in Maine, six in Florida. "The loft was a perfect fit. We can just shut the door and go."
She envisions skylights, French doors and a deck looking out onto the Great Falls. The space will be ready by late summer.
She has visited the area for 18 years. "The change that's gone on downtown I never would have thought would have happened," she said. "I'm excited about being part of that. I'm excited to get to know my neighbors. Five years from now, you won't be able to recognize it."
Two neighbors-to-be: Paul and Kate Landry, owners of Fish Bones American Grill.
The Landrys bought 112 Lisbon St., the Singer Building, home to Mother India restaurant, in February. Paul Landry said he and his wife can see downsizing from their log cabin in Wales sometime over the next five years. They will renovate the upper floors for executive condos.
"We really feel that it is downtown Lewiston’s time," he said. For retail and for living.
They looked at several properties. Singer stood out for alley access and solid construction. A friend told Landry, "It wants to be beautiful again."
More neighbors may be on their way: Last month, a Colorado architect flew out to view 133 Lisbon St., one of several people to whom John Sullivan said he's shown that listing.
'The up-and-coming thing'
Historically, owners often lived above their storefronts downtown. As they moved out and spaces became vacant, issues arose with building codes, egress and accessibility, said Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston's economic and community development director. In some cases, the buildings stayed empty.
"There certainly has been a lot of interest, and beyond interest, people are acting on it, which is heartening," Jeffers said. "I think downtown living is enjoying a renaissance. It made sense at one point. I think people are discovering the joys of walking to work, having a beer with your neighbor and walking two blocks."
Since 2006, at least $1,247,000 in renovations have been made to five properties on downtown Lisbon Street, according to city building permits. Similar figures before 2006 for comparison were not readily available from the city.
In 2011, the city spent $296,000 on elevator grants, facade grants and low-interest loans in the downtown. Since 2006, that figure is close to $1.2 million.
Prior to the recent burst of activity, "I can think of just a handful of apartments, done over the last 20 years," Jeffers said.
Eric Agren moved in five years ago when he opened Fuel, renovating the second-floor space above the restaurant into a large, executive apartment. Fuel's executive chef lives above Niky's Greek Restaurant, a few doors down. The curator of the Lyceum Gallery lives above Marche, Agren's other downtown Lisbon Street restaurant.
It's interesting, he said, that three of the city's high-end restaurateurs would choose to live on Lisbon Street, within walking distance of their restaurant doors. Those eateries, Agren said, have brought more people downtown, opened them to spending time there and opened them to possibilities.
"I don't consider it competition," he said. "I consider it great marketing. You can't have the specialty shop, the cool cafe, without people living here. You need people right there to say, 'Hey, I need X. I'm going to walk down the street to get it.'"
Owners of the new Forage Market, opened two weeks ago at 180 Lisbon St. after a yearlong renovation, hope people walk in for fresh groceries, coffee and sticky buns. In the past year, the two blocks of Lisbon Street closest to Main Street have seen the addition of The Vault, Kimball Street Studios and Niky's. Rainbow Bicycle & Fitness is set to open in late summer, with a cafe, in the former Drapeau's costume shop. They fit into the mix of existing shops and restaurants along the entire northern end of the street, including multiple halal markets and Somali-run boutiques, and still-visible "For Lease" signs.
Financing can still be a barrier to calling downtown home. Russell, 32, of Auburn, said when she and Morissette first wanted to buy a building several years ago, they were hampered by a bank requirement for 20 percent down on a commercial property. A traditional home loan required much less; they bought a place on Tampa Street instead.
In 2010, Morissette spied the fateful "for sale" sign.
"The front facade is really pretty, especially the top floors," Russell said. Inside, "it was rough, very rough."
The first floor, once home to French newspaper Le Messager, had been without a tenant for 10 to 15 years. The second floor, a former business college, was livable. The third, a former radio station and recording studio, was as "dark and dingy" as the first. The fourth was bare studs.
They moved into the second floor before Thanksgiving in 2010 and threw their backs into renovating the first floor, with the help of friends and family.
"We were worried the heating costs would be ridiculous, so we kept it at 52 degrees the first winter," Russell said. "It was definitely a rough six to nine months."
Pay-off for the hard work: Lewiston Auburn Magazine and Captive Elements Art House moved into their storefront in September.
Eventually, the couple would like to live on the fourth floor and renovate the second and third into loft-style apartments.
Russell walks to work at Smith Reuter Lull Architects. She walks their dog, Olive, a Welsh corgi, at lunch.
"Having a dog downtown, a lot of people wouldn't think that would work," she said. But, lots of things are possible.
"She was mortified," Palian said. "She said, 'No way.' Her kids were not going to live downtown. Now, she said, it's the up-and-coming thing."