Bath will borrow money for Customs House improvements

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BATH — One of the city’s most revered buildings may be one of its most porous, too.

So the City Council last week decided to borrow $250,000 for improvements to the Customs House on Front Street, which the city will repay over several years with money from its capital budget.

The work could take place over the next 18 months, City Manager Bill Giroux said on Tuesday. Much of the money will fund energy efficiency upgrades, like new windows and insulation, while there may also be mold abatement and the sealing of the structure itself. A set of closed outdoor steps on the southern side of the building will also be repaired.

“With several city-owned buildings like the Customs House, the income from the building is enough to cover the annual operations cost, but it’s not enough to cover major capital needs of the building,” Giroux said. “And so for that we need to use property tax dollars.”

The Customs House is now home to several tenants: Kennebec Co. designers and cabinetmakers, Edward Jones Investments, Spencer E. Gray Jr. Insurance and Fire Risk Management.

“I swear that the tenants are here because they love the building, not because it’s particularly convenient or easy to heat,” said Max Dawson, one of five members of the Customs House board of directors.

Dan Donovan, chairman of the board, said many windows in the building are about 9 feet tall by 5 feet wide. Forty percent of the exterior wall space is comprised of single-glazed windows that leak and allow heat loss, Dawson explained.

“Obviously keeping the water out is critical,” he continued. “And the board has been able to, over recent years, do some significant roof upgrades, repairs and replacements.”

The Patriot’s Day storm of 2007 peeled back the building’s copper roof, allowing water to enter and cause extensive damage. Repairs, which also included replacement of a roof membrane, came to about $32,000.

Those repairs should last the building about two decades, Dawson said. Still, the building faces other pressing matters, such as the windows.

In previous years the building has burned about 7,700 gallons of oil annually, Dawson said, adding that “anything we can do to reduce that is going to give us a big payback.”

In the search for energy-efficient replacements for the building’s 52 windows of various sizes, Dawson has seen one estimate totaling about $100,000. But it uses available products fitted to the window spaces that may not pass historic district review. Replicas of the current windows would be significantly more than $200,000, he said.

Also, the building’s granite walls need to be repointed and sealed. The east wall is a top priority, since that side is hardest hit by bad weather.

“Water is the nemesis,” Dawson said.

The building has three aging boilers, which board members hope not to have to replace until the other work has been completed.

The parking lot also needs to have a new base installed and be repaved, a project Dawson thinks Giroux may try to work into the city’s paving program.

Another more pressing concern is the dilapidated stairway on the south side of the building, which presents a safety issue.

Designed by Amni Burnham, the Italianate style Customs House structure was completed in 1858. The property originally was the home of William King, Maine’s first governor, who had a home built there circa 1800. Following King’s death in 1851 and the purchase of the property by the federal government, that house was privately purchased and moved 100 yards to the southeast, where it became the Shannon House hotel and in 1910 the King Tavern. In 1926 it was demolished for the approach of a bridge across the Kennebec River.

An addition to the Customs House was built in 1912, extending its length in the rear by 40 percent. After serving as a customs house and a post office, the building was acquired by the city in 1975 and underwent renovations with the aid of federal grants.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

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Customs House.JPGThe Customs House on Front Street in Bath is in need of window replacement and structural sealing, among other improvements. (Lear photo)

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.