GARDINER — If the state’s oldest opera house has any secrets left, they will be hard to find.

More than six months into the multimillion dollar project to remake the building in Gardiner’s historic downtown and its 400-plus seat theater, the structure has been stripped to its bones.

The layers of paint, fabric and wood added in prior renovations are being peeled back to expose brick and wood, and new bones — in the form of steel beams and the structure to house the new elevator — are being added to support the next phase in the lifecycle of the former livery stable at 280 Water St.

The stage of the third-floor theater during a tour last Wednesday of Johnson Hall at 280 Water St. in downtown Gardiner. Renovation plans call for the stage to be enlarged. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I have given a million tours from right here,” Michael Miclon, Johnson Hall’s executive and artistic director, said last week, standing on the main floor of the building’s upper theater. “I’d say when we get done, there will be a balcony right here and an elevator will go up over there. And now I can actually stand here and go: ‘Holy cow, there’s a balcony over there and an elevator shaft right there.'”

The mind-numbing part of working on a project that has taken nearly a decade to reach this point is all the work and planning required to be able to begin construction.

“I was wondering, ‘Are we ever going to (begin)?’ For the rest of my life, (will I be) saying, ‘We’re going to start construction?’ There it is,” he said, pointing to the new structures.


The plans that resulted from years of work are built on thousands of details that will never be seen once the project is completed: The location of plumbing and electric conduit for restrooms and the sound system, the lights for the upper theater that can only be changed from the roof, the orientation of the grand stairway and the muffling of the elevator’s ding on the balcony level so it does not detract from live performances.

And some of those details surfaced only after demolition began.

Until the building was closed off, the Studio Theater on the ground floor was used for performances and movies. Initially, Miclon said, very little was planned for the ground floor.

Now, in addition to changes to the entry, the Studio Theater is also to receive a bit of a facelift. The ramp at the back of the theater is being taken out because it does not meet access requirements stipulated in the Americans with Disabilities Act. A ramp with a new entrance point into the theater is planned.

Over the years, the building has been used as an opera house, a roller skating rink and a movie theater in the upper theater.

As the layers of its identities have been peeled back, Miclon said, other aspects of the building’s history have been uncovered, including evidence of five fires and water damage. The practice at the time of the fires was to build over the damage, Miclon said, but now that damage, including some under the stage, need be fixed.


‘That was about a $100,000 discovery,” he said, noting the project’s contingency fund has been tapped to pay for it.

When fundraising for this project began more than six years ago, Miclon and his board were planning a $4.3 million project to be completed in 2019.

Since then, a global COVID-19 pandemic with supply chain breakdowns and ordinary and extraordinary inflation, along with revealing the extent of work required to complete the project, have driven expected projects costs to more than $9 million, all of which has been raised, but there is a little more to go.

Michael Miclon, executive and artistic director of Johnson Hall at 280 Water St., gestures last Wednesday toward the stage from the newly built balcony during a tour of the venue at 280 Water St. in downtown Gardiner. More than six months into a now-$9 million project to remake Maine’s oldest opera house, the building has been stripped to its bones. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

When he first arrived at Johnson Hall in May 2013, Miclon said he was ready to begin construction then and there. Now, he said, the goal is to have a certificate of occupancy no later than Dec. 31, 2023.

But that does not mean the first show at the new theater will be scheduled for January 2024. Miclon said the theater’s staff members will need time to learn the audio systems and figure how more than 400 people will move through the building before, during and after shows.

By that time, Gardiner will be ready to welcome new visitors, Mayor Patricia Hart said, as it does now to annual events.


Gardiner Main Street’s Swine & Stein Brewfest draws as many as 1,200 people to the annual Oktoberfest celebration, and the Johnson Hall Free Waterfront Concert Series at Gardiner’s park on the Kennebec River regularly draws more than 400 people.

The underside of a new balcony, seen from the back of the third-floor theater, during a tour last Wednesday of Johnson Hall at 280 Water St. in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“On the last concert of the season, we had the concert and the Art Walk and everyone found a place to park,” Hart said, noting the city leases space on Water Street from Gardiner Main Street for additional parking.

In the meantime, Hart said city officials are working closely with Johnson Hall to make sure the construction goes smoothly, and she anticipates that will continue when Johnson Hall reopens.

While there is more than a year to go before work is expected to be completed, Miclon said it is nostalgic to see photographs of the building as it looked when he began working there and thought of how it would look after renovations.

“I’m glad it’s changed, but it was home for nine years,” he said. “Now, it’s fun because there’s so many surprises when I say I didn’t know what it was going to look like. I didn’t know it was going to be like this.”

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