SOUTH PORTLAND — After 10 months of construction costing more than $5.2 million, South Portland’s historic armory building is ready to begin serving the public again for the first time in more than 20 years.
On Tuesday, David Latulippe, spokesman for Topsham-based Priority Real Estate Group said that after obtaining an occupancy permit on Feb. 10, the final touches were put on the redevelopment – apart from landscaping, which will come in the spring – leading to an expected “soft-opening” on Friday, Feb. 17. No official grand opening is planned at this time, Latulippe said.
What visitors to the site will find is 10 Irving gas pumps, plus two diesel stations, behind the armory, where the 25,000-square-foot drill hall once stood. The front part of the building, known as the “head house” during its days as a National Guard office building, is now a Rusty Lantern convenience store, while the second floor now hosts Riverview Martial Arts, a nonprofit that hosts youth camps and other character building activities, in addition to offering instruction in self defense.
Adrian Dowling, a member of the South Portland Planning Board, who also is on the city’s arts and historic preservation committee, said he’s heard rumblings about the new sign in front of the armory lot at 682 Broadway, and on the building itself, but notes the city actually worked to reduce those commercial accoutrements.
“Originally, they were about 20 percent larger,” said Scott Whitaker, chairman of the historic preservation committee. “We had opportunity to sit down with them to go over the plans and make suggestions. We were willing to be flexible. We felt an any reduction in the size of the signs was better than none.”
Securing smaller signs was no small feat, given that Irving, “understandably,” Whitaker said, prefers to keep branding consistent at all its locations. Along the way, the committee also talked Priority into using sign brackets that had more of an industrial feel, rather than the more colonial look originally planned, while also helping convince developers to retain a wall on the back side of the building, similar to the false front seen in Old West commercial architecture, to signify the outline of where the drill hall had been.
“They had wanted to cover that in red shingles that would look like the original brickwork, but we were able to get them to make it as it looks now,” Whitaker said. “At the end of the day, they were really pretty accommodating. They heard our concerns and they were easy to work with.”
It has, however, been a long and winding road for the armory, once a storehouse and training ground for National Guard soldiers and a hub of activity during World War II, but still fondly remembered by many South Portland natives as a host to basketball games and community dances.
Built in 1941 as a Works Progress Administration project, with an art deco façade and festooned with concrete reliefs of various military hardware and armaments, the armory building first went on the auction block in 1996, after the National Guard vacated the site.
South Portland reportedly offered $250,000 for it then, later upping its offer to $350,000 in 2001. At the time there was talk of converting the cavernous building into a new city hall, or an updated public works garage. Instead, the armory was sold for $550,000 to The Museum of Glass and Ceramics in October 2002. But the museum never fulfilled its dream of creating a showcase for its collection and ended up going bankrupt four years later.
That’s when South Portland finally got the building, paying $650,000. However, the city’s grand plans failed to materialize and routine maintenance was left undone. For years, rain and snow flowed freely into the building from a hole left in the tower roof when storm winds tore off the flagpole.
“We’ve fixed that, but we also discovered the entire roof was in trouble,” Latulippe said. “Timing was important, because it was evident that building was not going to handle too many more winters.”
In 2012, after several years of negotiations, the city leased the armory to Fore River Sound Stage, which planned to create a production facility for film and television. That dream also failed to materialize, partly due to lack of funding, but also because, after signing the lease and allowing the sound stage to move in and begin work, the city refused to grant an occupancy permit until certain renovations were completed.
In early 2014, the city and the soundstage negotiated an early termination of the lease, which was to have run through 2016 and an option to buy the building. The city put the armory up for sale in June of that year and, after several false starts – some tire kickers were reportedly unimpressed with how the city had adjusted lot lines, shifting the dividing line between the armory and the adjacent fire/police station to within a few feet of the armory wall – an offer was finally accepted. The city council never voted on the sale, having given then city manager Jim Gailey sole discretion to close the deal.
In November 2014, Priority agreed to buy the building for $700,000. Afterward, the city created a “conditional armory zone” to enable redevelopment by splitting the lot off from the surrounding residential zone. It also paid M. Gaertner Historic Building Consultants of Portland $9,270 to create a photographic history of the building. The city also created a façade easement in order to give it some control over the front of the armory facing Broadway.
Finally, 18 months after its offer was accepted, the city signed paperwork to close the deal and complete the sale to Prioroty on May 17, 2016. Now, nine months later, the site is ready to open.
“We’re excited to be part of the South Portland community and bring this iconic building back to life,” Latulippe said.
According to Latulippe, there were surprises inside. Not only the roof, but the walls needed to be shored up, with steel beams added to support the martial arts activity on the second floor.
“I’ve done construction myself for several years, and I have to tell you, I’m very impressed with the work they did here,” said Andrew Atripaldi, executive director of the Riverview Foundation, which runs the martial art studio. “Their craftsmanship and attention to detail was really amazing.”
The letters which once spelled out Maine National Guard Armory on the front of the building now grace the back wall of the martial art studio, located over what was one a balcony overlooking the drill hall, but now is a window view of the gas pumps and parking area.
The entire project was about 30 percent larger than anything Priority had attempted before, Latulippe said. However, the company has won accolades for its work in the past.
A similar Rusty’s Market built by Priority in Topsham won a Project of the Year award from the Maine Association of Planners in 2013.
Latulippe described Rusty’s Market, which has counter service for breakfast and lunch, and features 14 seats inside – with more to come outside in the spring – as a “high end convenience store with a lot of emphasis on local and Maine products.”
The market and gas station are owned and operated by John Koch, who is leasing the property from Priority. The South Portland site will join Koch’s chain of Rusty Lantern markets, which includes sites in Portland and Brunswick, as well as Topsham.
Customers at the armory building, whether there for gas or food, to take a karate class or to check out the rebuilt art deco concrete reliefs and capstones, have two ways to enter the property. Traffic can turn in or out from either directions at Armory Street, located between the gas station and the central fire department, while the access on Hanson Street, on the Mill Creek side of the building, is right-in, right-out only.
“I think they did a great job on it,” said Whitaker, who, like Atripaldi once did, works in the building trade, and knows a thing or two about what he’s looking at in a redevelopment project.
“I think they reached a lot of challengers with the quality of the roof and exterior walls that they had not bargained for, but for an adaptive use of an old, historic building in the modern world, that still retains a respect for what was there before, I think what they did should be applauded.”
At the very least, the armory has come a long way from 2012, when Greater Portland Landmarks placed the property on its annual list of “Places in Peril,” historic sites in danger of being lost forever.
The organization has issued a similar list every year since 2012. The armory, it says, is the first site to see significant rehabilitation for new use.