Back when it opened in the fall of 1926, the Brewer High School on Somerset Street was a showplace of a public building. Built of rosy-yellow Brewer bricks, the state-of-the-art school boasted 14-foot stamped metal ceilings, polished hardwood floors and enormous, multi-paned windows in every room. In the basement were a gymnasium and an indoor basketball court. A set of heavy doors on the second floor opened into a theater-style auditorium with a roomy, elevated stage area, tiered rows of folding wooden seats and an ornate balcony.
These days, the old school, which later served as Brewer’s middle school from the late 1950s until 2008, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves a new purpose and a new population.
Last December, it opened its handsome, refurbished doors as Somerset Place, a 28-unit affordable senior housing complex, owned and managed by the Brewer Housing Authority.
The $6.4 million remodelling project left intact many of the classrooms, stairwells and other spaces original to the school. These days, the elegant theater is used for movies and other entertainment, and a portion of the old gym hosts yoga classes and other activities. Old trophy cases in the cavernous hallways feature photos of Brewer sports teams from days gone by. A backstage brick wall is autographed by budding thespians from across the decades. Classrooms have been artfully configured into spacious one-bedroom apartments.
“Being a historic building, we wanted to leave as much as we could while bringing it up to date for our residents,” said Gordon Stitham, executive director of the housing authority, showing visitors through the airy, sunlit building with evident pride.
All the units were filled within a few months, he said, and there’s a waiting list of about 35 individuals looking for an apartment here or in one of the housing authority’s other facilities.
Nona Cote, 77, was one of the first people to move into Somerset Place, although she was a little skeptical about leaving the nearby home where she had lived for about 15 years.
“I didn’t think I would like it this much, because I really loved my home,” the Aroostook County native said.
But she was having trouble keeping up with maintenance and other costs, so she took the plunge. Right away, she loved it, even the comforting sounds of other residents coming and going.
“I really didn’t like living alone after my husband died,” she said. “I like knowing other people are around.”
In accordance with federal guidelines, this “affordable” housing complex is open to people 55 and over who earn 60 percent of the area median income or less; that’s $25,980 for one person. Rents range from $580 to $696, including heat, and they can be significantly less if a resident qualifies for Section 8 funding or other subsidies.
Marta Daniel, 55, pays just $222 for her approximately 600-square-foot apartment on the third floor of Somerset Place. The former Manhattanite has furnished it with a lush, Asian-flavored flair. Most Mondays, her 20-month-old grandson, Dimitri, comes for a visit, winning the hearts of many of her neighbors.
“I was living at Norumbega Park, [another Brewer Housing Authority property], but it was really too big for one person,” she said.
Daniel has become friends with 56-year-old Stuart Murphy of Calais, who moved to Somerset Place after the housing project he lived in closed abruptly last winter.
“I’m blessed to live here,” Murphy said, showing off his tidy, modern, sparsely furnished apartment. “Everyone gets along great.”
He enjoys the monthly movies and the opportunity to play acoustic guitar for his new neighbors in the old theater.
“It was a little scary at first,” he said about his public performance. “I’ve never done it before.”
The rehabbing of for-profit Somerset Place was funded through federal tax credits issued to corporate investors such as the Northern New England Investment Fund and People’s United Bank. The project also qualified for tax-increment financing from the city of Brewer, a development-friendly agreement that keeps property taxes manageable for the housing authority.
“We’re always looking for new sites,” Stitham said. “In Brewer, affordable housing is what our seniors need most.”