Photos snapped a few years ago of the 19th century Lewiston Deposit & Trust building at 46 Lisbon St., in Lewiston, show marble upper-story floors, rich with creamy speckling.
It turns out they're wood floors, inundated with pigeon droppings.
“These rooms were closed up by the time we got here, but the pigeons had been here for a while, so the whole place was covered with droppings,” Kevin Morin says wryly, as he displays “before” photos on his phone.
Now it's “after,” and Morin and his wife Dianna Pozdniakov, have completed the building's award-winning renovation. After projects like tearing out old asbestos, putting in new sheetrock, refinishing those floors and repurposing original elements like gas light fixtures as LED sconces, they've installed their apartment on the third floor and a rental on the second. On the street level, they have Pozdniakov's handbag business, Sofia Fima, plus event and collaborative workspace.
It's part of a change taking place in downtown Lewiston. It's a work in progress, as owners, users and investors buy and renovate buildings, many of which date to the 19th century, and convert them for retail, restaurants, offices and residences.
“We've been very pleased with the investments we're seeing,” says Lincoln Jeffers, director of the Lewiston Economic and Community Development Department. “We've had downtown buildings that have been vacant on the upper floors for many years. But they have great historical character. And they're getting bought and redeveloped.”
That activity is seen in numerous projects. Morin and Pozdniakov had been architects living in New York. Their move to Maine in 2014 was about testing a different lifestyle. Lewiston is Morin's hometown, and they connected with the owners of 46 Lisbon, who ran Terry's Bridal Fashions there and wanted to sell. The couple, seeing new energy in Lewiston's downtown, leaped.
“When I left Lewiston in 2000, Lisbon Street didn't have any of this at the time,” Morin says. “We started to meet people who were enthusiastic and trying to get more things going, and we wanted to be part of that. Everything that's down here has happened in that last 10 or 11 years. This much or even more could happen in the next five or 10 years.”
At 110 Lisbon St., artist Sheri Withers Hollenbeck, her husband Stan Hollenbeck and their partner Corey DuFour are turning the old Lamey Wellehan building, vacant since the 1990s, into The Curio, an art gallery, ale house and makerspace.
At 199 Lisbon St., Jules Patry, owner of DaVinci's Eatery in the nearby Bates Mill, acquired the building and is doing renovations. He removed old sheathing and revealed an 1883 façade with massive steel columns. He's renovating it for mixed use.
At 12 Ash St., just off Lisbon, Peter Flanders, Rick Roy and Michael Gosselin transformed a basement space into the bar and eatery Sonder & Dram.
A sampling of other activity in the past decade includes:
In 2005, Eric and Carrie Agren bought the thousand-seat Lyceum Hall, built in 1871, at 49 Lisbon St. After restoration for ground-floor commercial and upper-story residential, he opened the French bistro Fuel, followed by Marche at 40 Lisbon St.
Agren, Patry and Platz Associates principal Tom Platz and are credited by others as instrumental in the downtown's resurgence.
Sonder & Dram's Gosselin, an Auburn native, says decades ago, locals and visitors frequented Lisbon Street: “This was a shopping center to rival anything in the Northeast at that time. People came from Camden and Boston to shop in Lewiston.”
The advent of shopping malls, then mill closures, ended that. The downtown grew derelict.
“When I said I was moving here, most people thought I was crazy,” says Rainbow Cycle's Grenier. “'Downtown Lewiston? Why do you want to go there? It's drugs and prostitutes.' I would say that was a reality 10 or more years ago. It's not reality at all now. But we have residents who have lived here their whole lives and they won't even drive through. 'Oh, no, I avoid that. It's dangerous.'”
Then the redevelopment surge began.
“Once people started seeing others doing it, they started jumping on,” says Sonder & Dram's Roy. “Now it's full force. A lot of investors want to buy buildings on this street and fix them up.”
The new businesses are complemented by the Gendron Franco Center, Public Theatre, Museum L/A and L/A Arts; community activities like art walks, shopping showcases and festivals; and amenities like greenway trails.
Androvise Realty broker Chad Sylvester has seen the change, working in downtown Lewiston since 2003.
“There were substantially fewer transactions then,” he says. “When Eric Agren built Fuel, I think that spurred downtown energy that we hadn't seen before.”
Sylvester notes that restaurant and retail activity along downtown Lisbon's northern blocks tends to get attention, but new activity also occurred along the southern section, like the 2010 arrival of Purdue University Global, at 475 Lisbon St. He and others say they expect new residents arriving at The Hartley Block will spur more vitality.
Many credit the immigrant community for adding energy, too.
“The children of the first wave of immigrants have graduated from college and are coming home, starting families and starting businesses,” says Jeffers.
In 2006, Shukri Abasheikh, a Somali immigrant, opened one of the most popular businesses, Mogadishu Store at 240 Lisbon St. Back then, she recalls, the downtown was not especially nice-looking.
“Not a lot of people,” she says. But the area was ideal for her family, being less chaotic and more walkable than Atlanta, where they'd lived before. Even those who leave for places like New York inevitably return to Lewiston, she says. All but one of her eight children, age 13 to 34, remain in Lewiston.
“Now it's very good. A lot of business, a lot of people, a lot of markets,” she says.
New collaborations, city initiatives and affordability continue to drive downtown redevelopment.
“We have a 2,400-square-foot apartment and we pay $1,000 per month with utilities included,” says Hollenbeck. “In Portland, we were in an extremely small apartment for $1,000 with nothing included, and that was close to 10 years ago. So you definitely get a lot more bang for your buck here.”
Rent for The Hive, displaying artwork by 15 artists, is $550 with utilities included.
“That's what a lot of studios go for in Portland for a cubicle,” she continues. “We get calls and emails from Portland artists who are getting priced out.”
But there's more to be done. A stroll down Lisbon reveals buildings available for purchase or underutilized, like the massive Depositors Trust Building, at 55 Lisbon St., on the market for $595,000. Sylvester lists the 1886 Sands Building, at 124 Lisbon St., at $374,000, and adjacent 130 and 136 Lisbon, built in 1916, as a package at $350,000.
Prices like that, with additional renovation, could make further investment tricky. Even with Pozdniakov and Morin's purchase of 46 Lisbon for only $42,000, they spent almost $500,000 on renovation.
“The buildings require a lot of love to bring them up to what they deserve to be,” says Pozdniakov. “It's challenging for someone to make the numbers work.”
All agree that more retail and residential is needed.
“We need a shoe store, a boutique, a gift shop — things like that that, where someone can come here and spend two hours walking around, like you would in downtown Portland,” says Grenier. “We don't have that quite yet.”
But things are coming around.
“I think there are still a lot of people in the surrounding community who are used to Lisbon Street being downtrodden that they don't realize what's going on here,” Hollenbeck says. “I screen-print a lot of 'I Love Lewiston' T-shirts. I'll wear one and get comments like, 'I wouldn't be caught dead wearing that.' I say, 'When was the last time you were there?' It's like, 'I haven't really been.' So there's this disconnect. We have beautiful architecture. We've got good housing stock. We've got restaurants and breweries. And you can afford to support them because you're not paying thousands for rent.”