BATH – Officials at the historic Chocolate Church Arts Center say the building, perhaps the premiere arts and entertainment venue in the city, is in need of costly structural and cosmetic improvements.

Roo Dunn, executive director of the center at 798 Washington St., said on Wednesday that the project – which needs historic district approval from the planning board before work can proceed – is estimated to cost $1.8 million.

That amount would cover stabilization of the belfry; removing or covering the building’s siding using a contemporary composite; conserving all of the structure’s trim and architectural details and fabricating those details where they are missing; installing new exterior storm windows over the stained-glass window; and adding insulation and a new, insulated roof. The project would also include work on an annex building, and updating and repairing fire alarms and exit lighting.

The proposal went before the board Oct. 7, but planners wanted questions answered about durability and expansion and contraction of the composite to be used and the weight of the material, before they rendered a decision. Dunn said he does not expect to go back to the board with answers until early next year.

Church operations in the building ceased in 1965, and the center – a private non-profit organization – now hosts concerts, theatrical productions and art shows.

The center has considered several different community development block grant options, and was prompted to proceed with improvement plans when a tenant, LifeChurch Bath, expressed interest in renovating the building for its own congregation.

“Whether the partnership with them succeeds or doesn’t move forward,” Dunn said, “we need to develop the latitude to care for the building in a manner which vastly extends the maintenance cycle.”

The original historic materials used to build the structure’s walls are not available, he explained – those used in the late 1840s to build it were old-growth trees that predated a human presence in the area. The building’s current paint cycle calls for each of its sides to be painted every three to five years, and the church has 12,000 square feet of siding, Dunn explained.

“We don’t feel it’s completely responsible to do a renovation using materials that we know that we and our successors are going to be stuck maintaining on a cycle that’s too expensive,” he said. “For that reason we want to use contemporary materials, like composites, which can be made historically sensitive.”

The center’s leadership has looked into using a product called Hardie Board, a fiber-and-cement composite, Dunn said. “We need to make sure that not just at street level, but at the level of the belfry – which is 80, 90 feet tall – that material is the right material to use.”

The siding has not been maintained consistently in at least 30 years, Dunn said, explaining that “we are losing wood by the day. It just is simply disappearing.”

With the improvements made, Dunn said, “we would hope to achieve a (paint) cycle of close to 10, 15 or more years.”

Two years ago the center commissioned a study from a historic studio architect who concluded that the work had to be done immediately, and that failure to do the work would lead to eventual structural failures, particularly in the belfry.

“The belfry has a list to the north of about 17 inches,” Dunn said. “It has moved about an inch in a year and a half. It could be possible in the near future that we would need to dismantle and dispose of the upper levels of the belfry. It is not believed that a lot of steeples can be taken down intact. It’s believed that this one won’t survive removal. Not to mention we don’t have the real estate to put it on: it’s a 14 by 14 (foot) structure. So if we got to the point of dismantling the belfry, it would be unlikely that it would be rebuilt any time soon. So the goal is to preserve it in place.”

The center also faces another urgent need: It costs $25,000 a year to heat the buildings. “And that’s not going to change until we close up the outside of the building, and make it tighter,” Dunn said. “… The amount of air ingress is substantial. We are our own micro-climate.”

Realizing that the work will take time, the center is looking into producing shows at other venues, such as the Montgomery Theater at Morse High School.

Community development block grants, if approved, would comprise only a small part of the $1.8 million, Dunn said.

“Funding it is the big issue,” he explained. “The philanthropy climate, as we’ve all been reading about, is not good, and we’re not in a position to mount a capital campaign.”

The center will pursue some grant opportunities, although Dunn is doubtful that any of them could adequately cover the money needed.

“So it’s a question,” Dunn said, “without an answer.”

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