The last thing to go was the Cosmopolitan Club sign.

Michele Ober, club president, had it taken down April 9, shortly before the new owner of the clubhouse at 894 Washington Street was handed the keys.

One hundred seventy-seven years of history—103 as the hostel of a women club’s good works—also passed into his care.

Fortunately, Tom Johnson, executive director of Victoria Mansion in Portland, has plenty of experience with historic homes.

The Cosmopolitan clubhouse is his tenth. He was the first to tour it, and he paid more than the $125,000 asking price to own it.

“I am enamored of this house,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful untouched example of Greek Revival architecture.”

Bronze locks on the original 1841 windows are of the finest quality available in the mid 19th century, he gushed. That verb is no exaggeration for effect.

Johnson’s excitement about the Cosmo clubhouse comes with decades of historic home experience. He’s also an advisory trustee of Maine Preservation, whose mission is to “promote and preserve historic places, buildings, downtowns and neighborhoods,” according to its website.

Even more, Johnson is the immediate past chair of Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the state’s historic preservation office.

A degree in American Studies with a focus in historic architecture helps, too.

“We could not have asked for a better buyer,” Ober said. “Historic preservation has been his life.”

Tom Johnson points out some the historic features of his new home’s windows. Raye Leonard photo

Forever (historic) home

Part of the Cosmopolitan Club’s mission—in addition to volunteer service—is historic preservation of its clubhouse.
The club consulted with Maine Preservation over the last few years as it explored ways to update the property. When members voted to sell it a year ago, the club entered Maine Preservation’s Protect and Sell Program to ensure the house’s historic elements would be protected in perpetuity.

That cost the club $25,000 and attached a preservation easement to the deed that safeguards exterior elements, like the windows, clapboards and doors. Any renovations to those items must be in keeping with the house’s history.
That means no vinyl siding or energy-efficient replacement windows.

Not that Johnson would consider that. “Even if it didn’t have the easements, I wouldn’t alter any of the historic features of the house,” he said.

That commitment is one of the reasons Johnson was considered an excellent potential buyer.
The Protect and Sell Program, “matches buyers interested in rehabilitating historic buildings with preservation-minded sellers of unique properties across Maine,” according to its website.

As the buyer, Johnson has agreed to abide by the easements. Maine Preservation will also follow up to ensure renovations are in keeping with the agreement.

It has sold six properties throughout Maine under the Protect and Sell Program since it began in 2014.
The Cosmopolitan clubhouse is the first in the Bath area.

“We really weren’t sure what the market would support,” said Sarah Hansen, Maine Preservation’s real estate manager. “There was so much structural repair, but the Cosmo Club was unique because most of our (Protect and Sell) properties are vacant and need a lot more work.”

The club had similar concerns. “Our biggest fear was that nobody would want it,” Ober said.

Michele Ober, club president, removed the Cosmopolitan Club sign on April 9. Sharon Oehmig photo

‘A flurry and a frenzy’

Johnson thought his most recent home in Cumberland would be his “forever home.”

Then a colleague who lives in Bath mentioned a special house was coming up for sale.

“I remember standing at those windows looking out at the (library) park, thinking ‘well, Tom, it’s time for another move,’” he said.

He remembers driving along Washington Street with his parents—also old home lovers —when he was just 15 years old.

“I noticed the Cosmopolitan Club even then,” he said, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved old houses, and I’ve always admired Bath and its historic architecture.”

The sale of the Cosmopolitan clubhouse closed on April 9, exactly two months after it went under contract.

“We had 21 showings in four-and-a-half days,” realtor Rick Bisson said. “It was a flurry and a frenzy, almost a panic.”

Bisson Real Estate listed the property through a partnership with Maine Preservation, which puts out a Request for

Proposal to local realtors when a property becomes available for sale.

Bisson says, “I have the passion—some call it the disease —for older homes,” so it’s not surprising Maine Preservation chose Bisson Real Estate as its local partner.

“Rick’s response to our request was impressive,” said Hansen.

The clubhouse went on the market on a Tuesday and by the end of the week, Bisson said offers were coming in.

“There were history buffs looking at it and investor types. I had people from out of state calling to get in to see it,” he said.

“Even after it went under contract, we still had brokers and unrepresented buyers calling, wanting to make offers if this buyer didn’t work out.”

But Johnson knew the clubhouse was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One might say that about any old house, especially if he’s owned nine or so before, but through every doorway, Johnson discovered historic features he’d never seen anywhere else.

“The arched ceiling on the third floor – I haven’t seen any room like it in a Greek Revival house until this one,” he said.

Undeterred by renovation estimates prepared by Les Fossel’s Restoration Resources that put the cost at $250,000 to $400,000, Johnson made his offer to buy the Cosmopolitan Club.

He paid more than the asking price, an amount that he would not disclose, but instead simply said, “The asking price was too low.”

“And the $400,000 renovation price is wildly inaccurate,” he added. “That structure is as solid as the day it was built.”

The city valuation of the property puts the clubhouse at about $240,000, but Johnson is not concerned about its resale value or what it will take to restore it to a glory befitting such a grand old home.

“This house really deserves the best treatment I can give it,” he said.

That’s a relief to the ladies of the Cosmopolitan Club. “We’re so happy that HE is so excited.”

Work has already begun at 894 Washington Street. Johnson was pleased to show off the maple flooring he discovered under the old linoleum and carpet. A laundry room has been plumbed and interior upgrades are underway in the kitchen and bathrooms.

“So I can live cleanly,” he explained, as he’s already begun to live there.

Painting of the exterior starts in a couple weeks. “It will remain white with dark green shutters,” he said, although some of the shrubs might be thinned.

Looking up at the crosshatched ceiling in the dining room, Johnson says, “I think I’ve got it together enough to know what to do. And what not to do. I made all my mistakes on my other houses.”

 

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