St. Lawrence Arts is owned and operated by the non-profit corporation Friends of the St. Lawrence, a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization created in 1996 to restore the historic St. Lawrence Church and return it to use as an arts center. The St. Lawrence has a 3-part mission:
The Friends of the St. Lawrence has an active Board of Directors, and three full-time staff members who administer the organization and manage the activities, the fundraising, the Parish Hall Theater, the interns, and numerous volunteers. Starting at its creation in 1996, the organization raised $1.5 million and renovated half of the building, opening the 110-seat Parish Hall Theater in May, 2001 (Phase I). The St. Lawrence manages the theater and rents the facility to artists and production companies. The yearly operating budget of approximately $180,000 is supported fully by revenues from the theater operation and unrestricted fundraising.
Designed by Arthur Bates Jennings in 1897 in the Romanesque, Queen Anne style, the church made a prominent statement on Portland’s cityscape, and from its beginning existed as a place of community. It was built for members of its congregation who lived in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood on the Eastern End of the Portland Peninsula. Despite its listing as a National Landmark in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designation as a local landmark by the City of Portland in 1990, the church was close to being condemned after decades of damaging water infiltration and neglect. After the church’s original congregation dwindled due to changing demographics of the neighborhood, it was de-consecrated and its doors were closed in 1986. The Friends of the St. Lawrence saved the deteriorating historic structure in 1996.
The interior of the St. Lawrence is no less impressive than its exterior for its functionality as well as beauty. Although more austere than the ornate exterior, the interior is decorated with wood wainscoting, two tiers of stained glass windows and high, wooden ceilings. The building was designed with two sides – the Parish Hall and the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary was more grand with 40-foot vaulted ceilings, a raked (sloped) floor and circular pews seating 400 that radiated like an amphitheater from the altar. Even in its dilapidated state the room never failed to impress, not only with its grandeur but also with its obvious potential. The 110-seat Parish Hall Theater opened in 2001 and has been serving the artistic community ever since as an accessible, affordable, state-of-the-art peformance space that is lauded by performers and audiences alike.
The St. Lawrence Church is located in the middle of the dense, residential neighborhood of Munjoy Hill in Portland, Maine, taking up an entire city block. As were many churches before television, the St. Lawrence was the social focus of the neighborhood, hosting scout troops, Saturday matinees, public suppers and amateur theater. The building’s decline physically affected the entire neighborhood, which was also in a blighted state. The subsequent rehabilitiation of the St. Lawrence Church has been accompanied by a broader, neighborhood-wide revitalization. Fundraising was challenging and donations, numbering in the thousands, have come from a community, grass-roots effort. Many of today’s patrons still come from the neighborhood and walk to performances and local activities.
The sum of the St. Lawrence Restoration Project is larger than any of its three parts – it is more than just fixing an historic building, doing work in a neighborhood or building a theater space. The St. Lawrence Project creates a mutually dependent model by which these disparate social needs and interests support each other. The arts center gives the obsolete historic landmark a constructive and economically viable use while in turn the restored structure provides an aesthetically pleasing and affordable venue perfect for artistic expression. This model is designed to be long-term and self-perpetuating. The initial capital investment in historic preservation goes on to support the arts in providing not only an affordable artistic venue, but also an income-producing asset as theater revenues currently cover a large percentage of the St. Lawrence operating expenses. This capital investment subsidizes the theater operation and makes it possible for the St. Lawrence to realistically offer the venue at affordable rates and to diverse groups of artists and performers for well into the future.
Board of Directors
Guy Gaudette, CPA, President
Glenn Morin, CPA, Treasurer
Frank Bishop, Esq.
Bruce Hyman, AICP
Rob Ruesch, Esq.
Freelance Technical Director
Tour Guide and Chief Custodian
Robert "Bob" Lipps