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The Old House Web

By Deborah Holmes

(Part I of III)

Editor's note: In the coastal Maine town of Bucksport, Doug and Jeanne Robinson have transformed an old bank building into a unique home and stained-glass studio. The Robinsons were in the midst of the project when I first visited them in 2001. Now the property is completed, and I've since paid a followup visit.

Doug and Jeanne Robinson
Doug and Jeanne Robinson, and "Patchules" the cat on the steps of "The Old Bank."

Doug and Jeanne Robinson traveled and worked around the globe as they raised their family. With the kids now grown, the couple began looking for a something they'd never had - a place to put down roots.

They tried Florida, only to see their charming little town near Orlando transformed into a traffic-snarled jumble of economy hotels and restaurants.

Thus began a four-year search for the perfect place to retire. The Robinsons considered grand Victorians in San Francisco and an old water mill in the picturesque North Carolina Mountains.

Then they chose to invest their dreams - and considerable retirement money - in Bucksport, a small, industrial Downeast Maine town. Their "home" isn't a house at all, but the 1910 commercial bank building pictured below.

The Old Bank
Home Sweet...Bank

"I know some of the locals think of us as 'those fools who are spending all that money that old bank,'" says Doug, a database manager whose idea of retirement is flying to Philadelphia every other week to oversee a massive database conversion project. "But others are happy that something is being done with this building."

Bad job
This picture, from the National Park Service Historic Preservation Guidelines shows an inappropriate remodeling of a 19th century commercial building. The large, modern arched window on the right is in stark conflict with the historical windows on both buildings.

"It's better than turning it into a pizza parlor," he adds, referring the sometimes awkward attempts at remodeling historic commercial buildings.

In fact, The Old Bank -- as the Robinsons call it -- was briefly considered for use as a bar, restaurant and office space.

The building, formerly occupied by Merrill Trust Company and then Fleet Bank, was sold to an investor in 1984.

It sat mostly vacant until the Robinsons discovered it.

Government preservation experts for the US Department of the Interior - those folks who write and publish the Preservation Briefs that determine, among other things the eligibility of a building for federal tax credits -- approve of the use of commercial buildings for residences, provided the commercial appearance of the building is retained while accommodating the new use.

The Robinsons also had a few requirements for their new home:

  • The area had to be beautiful.
  • The town had to be quiet and small, but with signs of measured growth and commercial activity.
  • The building had to be structurally intact and architecturally interesting. The Robinsons nearly bought an old grist mill in North Carolina, but decided the structural work required would be too expensive.

Another view of the outside, showing part of Main Street (Route 1) and a grand neighboring house.

Penobscot River view
The Penobscot River with a distant view of the mountains of Acadia National Park.

The more industrial waterfront just down from the Robinsons' bank, and looking across the Verona Island and Fort Knox.

The small, fixed basement windows have been replaced with larger, opening windows -- both for inside aesthetics and fire safety.

These arched windows let in plenty of light. They also let in plenty of cold, and will be replaced with double-glazed windows before another Maine winter.

(Click on pictures for larger view)

The town of Bucksport and the vacant, solid Old Bank seemed to fit the Robinson's needs.

  • The first floor windows of The Old Bank offer a view of the grand edifice of Fort Knox, a 19th century granite installation rising above the banks of the Penobscot River.
  • Bucksport sits 40 miles from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, a town and recreation are that attracts 3 million visitors a year. Bucksport is not on the most heavily traveled routes to Acadia, but does get a surge in traffic from park visitors in the summer. The town boasts a new marina and a growing commerical strip.
  • The bank boasts solid brick walls with sound mortar, a granite entrance and well-maintained and elegant roof brackets.

The Robinsons took the plunge a year and a half ago.

Sleeping in a vault

Two sleeping cats
The family cats find the vault makes a cozy sleeping area.

The Robinsons are extensively remodeling the inside of the bank to transform it from a formal bank to a cozy home and studio.

When Doug gets around to retiring, Jeanne will also retire from her job teaching college-level chemistry. They plan to use the main floor of the building as a studio and store for Doug's part-time hobby - making stained glass creations.

The Robinsons have preserved such original features as the tin ceiling, once covered by a newer suspended ceiling, and the 5-inch thick vault door. They've cleverly transformed the vault itself into a bedroom.

Brick columns have been painted rather than boxed in. This means that the basement living space had to have surface wiring, a trade-off the Robinsons' were willing to make.

"This is a brick building. What's the point of trying to cover up the brick support columns?" shrugs Jeanne.

A new, private outside entrance, a 2-story atrium, is created at the rear of the bank.

The glass is added, carefully...it's a 20-foot drop to the bottom.

broken window
Oops...the shattered middle panel shows what happens when too much pressure is put on large sheets of glass. This mistake put the atrium 2 weeks behind schedule.

bad concrete
The glass wasn't the only project gaffe. The newly poured concrete floor was nearly ruined by the mistaken application of a spray-on sealer.

tin ceiling
The beautiful tin ceiling in the former bank lobby.

vault door
The original vault door with all its original hardware.

Before any work can be done in the basement, drainage problems have to be corrected.

Holes are drilled in the eighteen-inch- thick basement vault walls to provide direct venting for the new HVAC system.

basement before
The basement before...


(Click on pictures for larger view.)

basement heat
during the installation of plumbing, insulation and radiant heating...

pouring floor
...while the new concrete aggregate floor is being poured and leveled.

The light-filled "grotto" takes shape. Brick columns are painted white and have surface wiring. Plaster is gently curved to soften and add warmth and interest to the room.

The first floor is the only livable space to date. A lifetime of furniture and curios are tucked - wall to ceiling - in the former bank lobby. Doug's computers are on makeshift desks. Cardboard boxes contain pictures, papers and other household items. The family cats sprawl on the sectional couches.

The downstairs, once a dank, dark basement is being transformed into a light-filled retreat that will be Doug and Jeanne's private living quarters.

From the outside, the building still looks like a bank. The only hint of a new use is a two-story atrium entrance which provides a separate and private outside entrance to the subterranean living quarters.

Original small, fixed basement windows have been replaced with larger , opening windows, both for inside aesthetics and fire safety. Grading was done to correct drainage problems and a section of the parking lot was re-paved. Holes were drilled through the 12-inch-thick outside walls to provide ventilation for the new heating system.

The town

The view from Doug and Jeanne's front door.

"Labor Day: The tree across the street has some red in it, the ice cream shop goes to shorter hours and the tourists are on their way home."

Bucksport with its deep water harbor in the Penobscot Bay, was founded in 1764 as a Colonial shipping port. These days oil tankers off-load petroleum products for northern and eastern Maine. A large International Paper mill which sits at the head of Main Street, ships glossy magazine paper from Bucksport.

The town has two other claims to fame:

  • The imposing façade of the 19th century Fort Knox looms over the town.
  • And the town is just 40 miles from Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, the 7th most visited National Park in the country.

It makes for a somewhat eclectic mix in town. The parking lot of the local McDonald's on a July afternoon holds the pick-up trucks of mill workers, expensive sport utility vehicles hauling even more expensive pleasure boats, and minivans of families visiting Fort Knox for the day.

That mix is just about right for Doug and Jeanne.

Do they have any second thoughts about the project?

Perhaps some, says Doug. But those tend to disappear when they stroll across the street to watch the sunset over the river, and catch the first blush of autumn in the trees.

>> Part II: A New Lease
>> Part III: A Kitchen to Bank On

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