NORWAY – If nothing else, experts say, the damaged three-story Opera House must be “buttoned down” to keep it standing as the centerpiece of the downtown National Historic District until other steps can be taken to ensure its survival.

“When these old buildings get abandoned, the roof falls in, the water comes in. The building deteriorates at an incredible fast rate,” Matt Tonello of Consigli Construction in Portland told about 50 people at a community forum Thursday night at the Norway Grange. “If you have an old building, keep a roof on it, keep the water out, keep the birds out and if possible keep some heat on.”

Tonello was one of three speakers, including Aaron Sturgis of Preservation Timber-Framing in Berwick and Lock Kiermaier of Mattson Development in Winthrop, who work on historic preservation projects and were present to talk to residents about how to make renovation efforts successful.

While the news appeared grim to many of the residents who hope to save the privately-owned 1894 brick building and bell tower on Main Street, the speakers urged them to keep on with their efforts and showed several cases of deteriorating structures that were saved through renovation efforts. “You can find the right way,” Sturgis said.

Successful historic renovation projects need a vision, planning, money, probably a developer, and community support, the presenters told residents.

“It’s a big albatross for this town. How do you deal with it? You deal with it one step at a time,” Sturgis said of the Opera House.

The building was constructed by the Norway Building Association, then owned by the town from 1920 to the mid-1970s, and then by a succession of private owners for the past 30 years or so.

The ballroom and balcony on the upper floors played host to the community life of Norway, including concerts, balls, traveling minstrel shows, theater performances, National Guard musters, town meetings and high school graduation ceremonies. The top stories have been unused since a movie theater closed in the 1970s, and the five ground-floor storefronts have had occupants off and on over the years.

On Sept. 21, 2007, about a half dozen already-rotted roof trusses along the south wall gave way under the weight of water that had pooled on the sagging roof, according to an engineer’s assessment. The roof water, and even more from a third-floor sprinkler pipe that snapped when the weakened roof trusses finally broke, rained down through the vacant top two floors and into the first, forcing two businesses to move out.

Owner Barry Mazzaglia, a developer from Londonderry, N.H., had no insurance on the building and immediately began shoring it up. He bought it for $225,000 in 2003 after it was placed on the state’s Most Endangered Historic Properties list by Maine Preservation of Portland. The designation is to raise awareness and focus the need for an organized rescue of significant historic properties that are threatened by deterioration, disuse and even demolition.

The challenges in renovations are many. “They’re not easy,” Tonello said of the “unknowns” lurking behind the walls, such as hazardous materials, and other issues which all add to the expense of a project, making it more risky for contractors and developers.

“It’s a great feeling when you’re done and you can put a building back to use that’s just been sitting there for a long time,” he said.

Sturgis said no matter how bad a project looks, it’s probably possible to successfully restore it.

“I believe we can fix any building,” he said. “With some ingenuity and some talent we can be successful.”

Sturgis said some of the primary goals in a restoration project are to give the building structural integrity, put the right contractors in place, get the support, vision, and even, at times, manpower of the community.

“You need to energize your community in as many ways as possible. It’s a simple formula, but if you ignore it you’re throwing away money,” he said.

Kiermaier said if the community can not raise the money to renovate, it should save the building with temporary measures.

“Button it down till times get better,” he said.

There are resources available said the experts, who touted the recently-enacted historic property tax credit bill that provides a 20 percent tax credit with a cap of $5 million to restore National Register properties.

Roxanne Elfin of Preservation Planning Associates in Buxton moderated the event and said the critical factor she hears in renovation projects regards ownership.

“The No. 1 issue is it’s (an historic building) not owned by the right people,” Elfin said. “Ownership is a huge issue.”

“Just stick with it,” Sturgis advised. “You will come out on the other side.”

Its imposing tower encases a historic E. Howard clock, which is being renovated by the town under an easement agreement.

The next and final forum will be held Nov. 12 at the Town Hall. At that time, the Board of Selectmen will discuss the issue of the Opera House.

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