For nearly 100 years, a massive building stood in the center of Rockland which served as a source of civic pride because it had been constructed of granite from local quarries.
That building was a federally-owned building used both as a custom house and a post office. During the 1960s, however, the federal government wanted a more modern-looking facility for its Rockland area offices and the new brick structure was built in 1967.
Three years later, the old Custom House building was demolished. Forty-five years later, those who remember the stately structure say that it was one of the greatest mistakes made in the community. A building made of thick granite should have lasted another century or two, the old-timers lament.
New generations of Rockland residents may soon witness their version of that loss. The building now known as the former Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education was built in 1868 as Rockland High School. Rockland was a bustling city in that post Civil War era. The brick high school provided a consolidated place to replace a mishmash of old wooden buildings.
From about 1900 on there were calls to expand the high school because of overcrowding. But it was not until 1925 that a major renovation and the addition of two wings were completed to make the school the same look as it has today.
The school on Lincoln Street remained as the high school until 1963 when Rockland District High School opened to serve not only Rockland youths but the young people of Owls Head and South Thomaston who had joined with the city in 1958 to create School Administrative District 5.
The Lincoln Street building served as Rockland District Junior High School, later renamed Rockland District Middle School, until the fall of 1995. The school was closed about three months into the school year when a wave of illnesses were suspected of being linked to poor air quality. The emergency closure resulted in the middle school students and high school students sharing RDHS’ campus until voters had no choice but to approve a new middle school.
SAD 5 turned the old school building over to the city of Rockland in 19996. The historic structure took on a new life in 1998 as the Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education. Artists of all forms rented out classrooms to teach. The independent Watershed School moved in and became successful at that location.
The building kept its roots, however, as the Rockland Alumni Association stored more than 100 years of memorabilia in the building.
But the arts group was never able to keep its financial head above water because of the cost of maintaining a 144-year-old, 45,000 square-foot building. The cost to replace the roof and repair bulging brick facades was too great for the non-profit organization. In April, the group announced it would be closing the enter as of June 30.
There was a brief attempt by a small cadre of local citizens to save the building but that group also soon realized the high cost of maintaining the structure.
Camden National Bank now holds control of the building, having held the mortgage from the arts group. A for sale sign sits out in front of the stately structure but there are concerns by many local people that no one will step forward to buy it.
The school has a gymnasium, it has a beautiful theater that was the setting for one scene in the Academy Award nominated movie “In the Bedroom” with Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tormei, and Tom Wilkinson. I did not receive a credit but I also appeared in two brief scenes in that movie, playing — what else — but a reporter. I like to refer to Spacek, Wilkinson and Tomei as my co-stars, but I digress.
The Lincoln Street building has played an important role in the lives of anyone from Rockland who is 29-years-old or older.
In hindsight, many wonder whether the school district should have simply invested the money into renovating the school and it would still be a vibrant part of the community.
The taxpayers of Rockland would likely not consider one option. The building could be used as a city hall, an annex to the recreation center and then the remaining spaces leased out to offset the cost of operations.
Rockland’s current city hall is a fine building but is located on the outskirts of the city rather than in the heart of the community.
If no action is taken soon, the Lincoln Street building may face the same fate as the old Custom House. And 45 years from now, old-timers will lament the loss of that chunk of Rockland’s history.