AUGUSTA — Jim Whitten spent his freshman and sophomore years attending classes in the Cony High School flatiron building, a place that the 65-year-old is now excited to call home.
He’s been away from his native Augusta the last 25 years, and now acknowledges somewhat begrudgingly that he’s back in his senior years. His high-ceilinged apartment is on a front corner of the old Cony flatiron building, with views of the State House dome.
“I came home to Augusta,” Whitten said. “I love it. It’s a beautiful building, and it’s got everything I need. Every time I walk out into the hallway and look around, I think, ‘I’m in my high school. What could be better?’”
Whitten, one of the first residents of the old school converted to senior housing, had been back only a few days when he was walking up the street to the neighboring Hannaford supermarket and heard a familiar greeting, from someone who turned out to be a former classmate driving by, yelling, “Hey Whit!” — his nickname.
“When I heard about this opportunity to come back to Augusta and live here, I jumped on it,” he said. “It’s good to be around friends.”
Whitten said he’s already given about eight tours of the building, which started taking in residents a couple of weeks ago, to friends interested in how the refurbished and re-purposed school turned out.
Whitten isn’t the only one thrilled with how the old place has turned out. It was redeveloped by Cynthia Taylor, of Housing Initiatives of New England, who also redeveloped the Inn at City Hall in Augusta.
“It’s a phenomenal example of how historic preservation and affordable housing can work together,” said Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the quasi-municipal Augusta Housing Authority, which wasn’t involved in the project. “Cyndy has been able to completely restore one of the most important historic landmarks in our city and create a place where seniors can age in place, in many cases surrounded by memories of their younger days.”
The old Cony flatiron building, built in 1926, is still owned by the city but was turned over for Taylor to redevelop into housing, on a 49-year lease, for $1 a year.
City officials struggled for years to find a developer willing to take on finding a new use for the old, distinctively shaped building overlooking the Cony roundabout. During that time, the city spent about $75,000 a year to heat and maintain the vacant former school, expenses it won’t have with the building in Taylor’s hands.
“What a gem. Cyndy worked her magic one more time,” City Manager William Bridgeo said of the building, which is surrounded by landscaped grounds that include a sitting area with granite benches and a “edible patio” featuring gardens full of a wide variety of vegetables in raised wooden platforms, to make it easier for residents to tend to them. “It’s just a beautiful facility. The people living there are so fortunate. Cyndy has come through 100 percent on the representations she made when she put her proposal in to redevelop it. She’s the best I’ve seen.”
The locked former main entrance to the apartment building, now dubbed Cony Flatiron Senior Residence, features a stately, hushed lobby with leather seats.
It has numerous public spaces spread throughout its three floors, including a library with original closets taken from the former classrooms; a health room where people can be examined by a nurse, though there is not one on staff in the building; an activity and yoga room with a large mirror and dance bar on one wall and an old, unrestored chalkboard saved from the old school on another; a laundry with its own lounge; and a restored grand staircase, with a marble “Cony Academy” tablet from the original 1886 Cony school building, which preceded the flatiron building, looming over the double stairs where they split to reach both sides of the upper floors. Also, a new skylight, taking the place of the former old dirty one, bathes the staircase in natural light.
What Taylor calls the front porch of the building, with seating looking out at busy Cony Circle, can be used by residents as an exit.
Bartlett said she was awestruck when she first walked into the restored building. The Cony graduate said walking through the halls “was like an emotional time warp back to my high school days, only prettier.”
Norman Rodrigue, like Whitten a member of the Cony class of 1967 and a longtime Augusta resident, was inside the building recently, taking photos to post on a Cony alumni Facebook page.
“You’ve outdone yourselves; it’s the talk of the town,” Rodrigue said to Taylor. “It’s beautiful. Not much has changed. Almost nothing has been demolished. It’s great even for someone with no connections to Cony High School. And there are thousands of Cony graduates that do have a connection, so they’ll love it.”
Taylor said some alumni who’ve toured the former school were so moved to see how it was refurbished and preserved that they cried.
In place of the old school’s classrooms, library and offices are 48 one and two-bedroom apartments. Of those, 24 are already leased.
Applications to live there are available online or by calling 622-2666. Residents must be at least 55 years old.
Taylor is confident the rest of the apartments will fill up — hopefully, she said, by next month.
She said the first week they started taking applications, 180 people expressed interest. She said a catch has been finding people who want to live there who also fit the income restrictions. Because the project was partially funded by $6.8 million from the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, residents who make more than predetermined incomes each year can’t live there.
‘LIKE A BOUTIQUE HOTEL’
Twenty units are reserved for tenants with 50 percent or less of the area’s median annual income, and 28 are reserved for tenants with 60 percent or less of the area median annual income. Generally, the units are for people whose annual incomes are around $25,000 to $30,000, or less.
Rents range from $535 to $650 for one-bedroom units and $640 to $780 for two-bedroom units. Heat and air conditioning are included in those rates. Units have their own thermostats. Electricity and cable television are not included.
Each room has a small black plaque outside its door, made of materials re-purposed from the old school’s former chalkboards, each with a small label in the distinctive flatiron shape that gave the building its name, which bears the room number.
The building seems quiet inside, even with traffic rushing past outside on Stone and Cony streets and Cony Circle. Taylor credits the existing thick brick walls, plus newly installed glass, for keeping it peaceful inside.
Taylor, who, during a recent tour, fussed over details, put away cans of paint, dusted, peeled labels left on appliances, and cleaned up areas as she went, like a concerned homeowner preparing her home for a party, is pleased with how the place turned out.
“It’s like a boutique hotel,” she said, looking down the wide hallways that start at the tip of the triangular building and flow back along both sides. “I’m very happy with it. We had great people working on it, very talented people. A lot of hard work went into this building.”
She said it was hard to keep the project within its roughly $11 million budget, describing it as one of the most challenging projects she’s taken on, but it was completed within budget.
She said one of the most challenging parts of it was refurbishing the auditorium and the stage.
Preserving the auditorium as a performing arts space was a desire expressed by many Cony alumni. Taylor agreed to keep it, even though, with no apartments able to be located inside the space occupied by the auditorium, it meant less income-producing space.
She anticipates the space will be used to host dance recitals, plays by children, chorus performances and low-key musical acts. The auditorium’s balcony can’t be used because it has only one exit. However, huge, arched windows let light in above the balcony, and it reaches down to the auditorium’s main floor. An elevator can be used to reach the auditorium directly, helping to preserve residents’ privacy when an event is taking place there.
The Cony Alumni Association raised $23,500 to help pay for a new curtain to be created for the stage. It will be designed to match the original curtain, in Cony red with CHS emblazoned on it. Taylor said the curtain is due to arrive this week.
Bartlett, who is overseeing the Augusta Housing Authority’s efforts to convert the nearby former Hodgkins Middle School into senior housing, said the Augusta area has a growing population of senior citizens.
She said a market study conducted from 2013 to 2014 concluded Augusta would need 192 more affordable senior housing units to keep pace with demand. Since 2013, she said, Augusta has lost 140 rental units to fire and safety code problems.
She said she doesn’t see the Cony and Hodgkins projects as hurting each other with competition for renters.
“We are targeting generally the same population, but the need is so huge that both of these developments really only make a dent,” Bartlett said.
Taylor said it is gratifying to bring back a historic structure such as the former high school, noting she could never afford to do a project from the ground up with as many architectural details as are preserved in the flatiron building.
“When you walk in, you may not notice every detail,” she said, “but you feel it.”