After purchasing the Moses and Columbia blocks on the corner of Front and Summer Streets from the Sagadahock Real Estate Association in July, Bath Housing is exploring ways to revitalize the empty space in the building while honoring its history. (Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record)

BATH — Bath Housing will give the public a glimpse behind the facade of the Moses and Columbia blocks, which it purchased in July from the Sagadahock Real Estate Association

Tours of the former recreation center and the old YMCA gym will held from 2-4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, at 184 Front Street in Bath.

“The recreation room and old YMCA have a phenomenal amount of history in the city of Bath, and I think a lot of people walking around town have no idea it exists,” said Debora Keller, Bath Housing’s executive director. 

According to local historian Robin Haynes, when the building was built in 1893 on the ashes of the Columbian Hall and Columbian Hotel, it housed a grocery store, a restaurant and a candy store, among other things. The buildings also held the old YMCA and a theater, which later became a recreational space and after-school program. Ten apartment units in the Moses block were created in 1984, nearly 100 years after the building was constructed. 

For many who grew up in Bath, the Moses and Columbia blocks are a piece of their childhood, including Brian Hatch of Bath, who described the property as “a happening place for kids back in the day.”

Hatch said one of his strongest memories was attending a dance at the recreation center in the Columbia block in April of 1970 while visiting home during his freshman year of college. He said he remembers walking into the smokey room – smoking indoors was allowed in that room – and meeting a Morse High School senior who would later become his wife.

“Four Aprils later that girl and I were married and still are to this day,” said Hatch.

Hatch described the recreation room was, “a cavernous room with a few ping pong tables, some tables with chairs and a raised stage for rock groups to play from at weekend dances.” 

When Hatch recently toured the space, he said, “When I walked in that door to the gym, it’s like all the memories flooded back to me.”

Hatch said he has fond memories of watching “Dark Shadows” in the Columbia block’s recreation room after school and practicing his basketball skills during school vacations at the old YMCA, housed in the Moses block.

“Everybody that comes through (the building) has a story or gives us a little bit more information about the history of the building and I just love that,” said Keller. 

Keller said she’s captivated by how little the property has changed over time. When Bath Housing purchased the parcels, a local theater group was using the recreation room as storage space for costumes. Keller said once faux boa feathers were cleaned and the rug was pulled up, the room looked eerily similar to decades-old photos of the space hosting weekly dances.

That room was dormant for many years, but Keller sees potential in the now-empty space. As a long-term goal, Keller said Bath Housing is looking into ways to add more housing units in the building. 

After changing hands in July, the 10 existing apartment units in the upper levels of the building remained unsubsidized rental housing, and no changes were made to the existing street-level retail spaces or the parking lot. 

In addition to housing and retail space, the Moses block offers 10,000 square feet of unused space, for which Keller said Bath Housing a few short-term goals, but no firm plans for the future of the empty space have been decided. 

“At the core, we wanted to stabilize the properties,” said Keller. “We’re going to be doing an asbestos remediation project this winter and then take some time to understand what our options and opportunities are.” 

Bath Housing currently operates 185 apartments. Five of its properties have rents subsidized by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The apartment units within the Columbia and Moses blocks are “available to everyone,” according to Keller. “There are no age or income restrictions.” 

“The Moses building has been vacant for a while, so we’re excited to see what Bath Housing proposes,” said City Manager Peter Owen in July. 

John Morse IV, whose family owns Sagadahock Real Estate Association, is confident Bath Housing will do their part in preserving the historic downtown and will “do right by Bath.”

“They understand how Bath works,” he said.

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