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Mystic - Bill Middleton figures the Mystic Arts Center has done to the former Emporium gift shop on Water Street "pretty much everything you can do to a building without actually tearing it down."
Middleton, treasurer of the arts center's board and project coordinator for the nearly $700,000 renovation, gave a tour of the building this week, saying he expected it to be ready for occupancy by early fall.
Plans are for the first floor of the 4,250-square-foot building to contain art gallery and function space, while the basement will be converted into a wine bar leased by Stephen Clemente, owner of Frizzante Champagne & Wine Bar in North Stonington. Three apartments on upper floors (two already spoken for) round out the renovation, undertaken last October after the arts center bought The Emporium in the spring for $500,000.
"We rebuilt the entire roof," Middleton said. "It's really building a brand new building inside of a shell."
Indeed, nothing is left of the quirky Emporium interior - even the old floors had to go because they weren't up to modern building codes. Some of the boards may find new life in the wine bar, however.
Middleton said the arts center decided to buy the Emporium building partly as a way to generate more interest in their activities among casual passersby. The arts center property is contiguous to The Emporium, but is hidden behind shrubbery and a rock outcropping, resulting in a low profile even among community members.
Middleton said a Mystic Arts Center sign will be going up where The Emporium once trumpeted its "curious oddities" and "notional whimseys." The gallery will be known as 15 Water Street.
"It gives us a streetfront presence, which helps a lot," Middleton said.
Middleton said the arts center at first had intended to rent out the main floor of the building to the next-door Oyster Club restaurant, figuring to generate money to help pay for the renovation. But a significant donor expressed an interest in the arts center installing a gallery right away, so plans were changed with no hard feelings, he said.
The initial purchase of the building was funded by a $100,000 donation by an arts center patron. The rest of the purchase price and renovations are largely being funded by Chelsea Groton Bank, he said.
Middleton said he got valuable help during the renovation process from civil engineer Gregg Fedus and local builder Wes Maxwell. He credited architect Rusty Sergeant for reimagining the existing square footage and maximizing space within his design, which eschews interior staircases.
"Every inch in here matters," Middleton said.
Middleton also managed to claim some extra parking spaces for the gallery and wine bar by blasting into ledge toward one side of the property.
"The neighbors were good sports," he added.
Toward the back of the property, where tenants will enter and exit, an addition put on the building in recent years had to be completely redone because the original work was not up to par, Middleton said. Other areas of the building had to be braced to add extra support.
Middleton said the arts center didn't cut any corners in bringing the building into a more modern age. Yet the charming exterior of the historic 1859 building has remained intact, he noted.
"From the street, you couldn't tell anything substantial happened," he said.