The distinctive yellow building that housed the Bowdoin Mill and operated as a paper mill for 120 years at the mouth of Brunswick Falls stood empty, quietly overlooking the Androscoggin River, for more than a dozen years after its closing.
While weather and vandals abused the massive, 31/2-story giant – known to locals as the Pejepscot Mill – the town, which lost its biggest employer and largest taxpayer, anguished over what to do.
“We [wondered] how the town was going to survive, because the mill was its life,” Bill Larrabee, former millworker and town selectman during the closing, said recently.
Private developers with an interest in historic preservation finally took notice eight years ago and saved the cornerstone of the community’s downtown village.
And they didn’t stop there.
“Ten years ago, this was a wasteland,” architect Ric Quesada said recently. “It was worse than you could imagine. The mill was about to fall into the river.”
Using a blueprint created by the city in 1996 titled, “The Main Street Vision – A plan for reclaiming Topsham Village,” Quesada, along with his brother Peter Quesada, created Bowdoin Mill Associates LLC and started their project by renovating the empty mill.
The brothers then expanded the scope of their undertaking and used the city’s vision as a “textbook for the development of the entire lower village,” Ric Quesada said recently.
Larrabee’s wife worked at the mill for 35 years and is one of many relatives and neighbors who spent their lives laboring in its hulk.
With huge decreases in tax revenues, the toughest part of the closing was watching the lower village slowly fall into ruin, he said.
Using more than $2 million in personal funds, the investors quickly redeveloped the peeling, lemon-colored building into office space and a restaurant that overlooks the river, while keeping intact aesthetic and historic elements of the former wood pulp mill that, during its heyday, made newsprint for most of New England.
Exposed original brick that still has marks made by workers from long ago, for example, can still be found.
The town stayed active in the project by realigning a road, trading land, giving tax breaks and attaining grants to assist with the overall plan, said Topsham town planner Rich Roedner, who added: “It’s been a real partnership to get this done.”
The first mill building was completed nearly three years ago; the last building was completed about a year ago.
“This paper mill was the [village center] of the local community,” Ric Quesada said. “We returned it to that.”
Bowdoin Mill, Topsham
Mill type: paper, Bowdoin Manufacturing Co.
Size: 13 cluster buildings on 3.7 acres located in lower village
Last operated: 1985
Redevelopment: private, following public plan; purchased by private investors in 1998
Owners invested: more than $2 million
Now: 100 percent redeveloped, filled with tenants