Stained glass windows, murals, and ornamental plaster highlight a very unique town hall.
If you’ve driven through Monmouth, Maine, you’ve probably seen Cumston Hall. It is a large, asymmetrical community building built in 1900 that stands prominently on Maine Street. The money for the new “town hall” was generously by Dr. Charles M. Cumston who commissioned the artist Harry Cochrane to make it happen. It currently houses the town library, a 250-seat theater/opera house (that the Theater at Monmouth calls home), and also hosts various public functions in its community rooms. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
I visited Cumston Hall in November 2021. Only the library was open and I was walking around the library admiring the detail and the gorgeous light coming through the stained glass windows. The library was empty except for me and the librarian, Julie Sawtelle. I struck up a conversation with her, telling her that I was curious about the space. She graciously offered to give me an impromptu tour of the rest of Cumston Hall. I gladly took her up on her offer and got to see quite a bit of the building.
The Building Proper
Wikipedia describes Cumston Hall as a “flamboyant example of wooden Romanesque Revival architecture.”
The welcoming front porch has an ornate Cumston Hall sign above it. The porch itself has a number of columns and and was filled with Fall mums on my November visit. Once through the imposing front door, you entera stunning sitting room with a fireplace in the corner, period furniture, and many historical paintings (some of which were done by Harry Cochrane) on the walls. The sitting room leads into the old section of the library, where narrow stacks mix with intricate woodwork and you start to see the light provided by the stained glass windows.
As you walk around the library, through the hallways, and ascend the staircase, you take in intricate wood trim, angles, curves. More than 100 stained glass windows, made by Cochrane himself, adorn the Hall.
Numbers: The tower, at the front right of the building, stands at 91 feet. The entire building, including the attached octagonal office which connects with a carriage opening, is 120 feet wide. The stage is 16 feet deep. When it first opened, the opera hall seated 452 people. It is now setup for 250, as the widening of America certainly required more spacious seats.
Finished in 1900, the hall cost $20,000 (approx. $650K in 2021) and took 1 year to build it. Near the end of the project, Dr. Cumston was discussing the lighting with Harry Cochrane and the plan was to light it with kerosene.
“We are not going to spoil that hall in that fashion. I’ll have it lighted by electricity if it costs a thousand dollars more.”
So Harry listened to Dr. Cumston, built a power plant, and Custon Hall became the first building in Monmouth to be lit by electricity.
The Opera Hall
As you enter the hall itself, you first see the gorgeous light which plays off the elaborate plaster carvings and wood trim. The pastel color palette of the space features “old rose” and “nile green” and the entire outer wall features a hand painted decoration. The detail is in old ivory and is flecked with gold. As you glance up, you see an elaborately painted fresco mural ceiling and a similarly painted dome. Dancing cherubs abound. The stage is crowned by an archway, and heavily decorated box seats flank the stage. Cochrane designed the balcony to be supported by the building itself, as he did not want to affect the sound or sight lines with columns.
“Music will here have a setting worthy of it and of the most artistic efforts.” – Harry Cochrane
Weeks before the formal opening of Cumston Hall, the designer Harry Cochrane gave a tour to the Lewiston Journal. During the tour, he demonstrated the acoustics of the hall by first speaking in a whisper on stage which was heard clearly at the back wall. Then, he dropped a pin from 5 feet up which was heard clearly as well. The acoustic properties of the hall were almost perfect and the reporter was impressed.
A Harry of All Trades
Dr. Cumston chose Monmouth’s own Harry Hayman Cochrane for the project, even though Harry had never designed a building before. Harry was indeed a talented man. His father was a professional portrait painter and architect, and Harry followed in his footsteps. Over his lifetime, he was commissioned to decorate about 400 buildings in Maine and New England including churches, parish halls, convents, banks, and courthouses. Besides Cumston hall, he is probably best known for the murals he painted in 1927 when decorating the Kora Shrine Temple in Lewiston. The floor-to-ceiling murals of Arabic scenes with Masonic themes highlight the ceremonial halls. He drew inspiration from visits to Palestine, Syria and Egypt.
Besides being a painter, Harry was also an accomplished musician and even composed the music and conducted the orchestra for the grand opening celebration of Custom Hall in 1900. He was also commissioned to design the State of Maine Centennial coin in 1920 for the U.S. Mint (which was not viewed favorably when it was minted). In later years, he found time to publish some books including “The History of Monmouth and Wales” and “Following the Fez.” The latter sounds interesting.
At Custon Hall, Harry did it all. He designed not only the building, but he executed the plaster ornamentation, the 100 stained glass windows, the stenciling and murals, the molding of the exterior and interior wood trim, and the color schemes. He owned a stained glass factory in Monmouth at the time which certainly helped.
A Gift to Monmouth
Dr. Charles Cumston, the longtime headmaster of Boston English High School, retired to Monmouth. In 1899, he announced to the town that he would give them a community hall. He hired Monmouth resident Harry Hayman Cochrane to design and build the structure, even though he had never designed a building before.
Charles Cumston was born in Scarborough in 1824, went to Monmouth Academy and then on to Bowdoin College where he graduated in 1843 at the ripe age of 19. In 1905, he endowed a scholarship in his name with $23,850 (worth approximately $750K today), preferably given to a graduate of the English School of Boston.
After Bowdoin, Charles taught in Turner, Gray, and Alfred before moving to Massachusetts and teaching in Reading, Woburn and Salem. He was then hired by the prestigious English School of Boston where he ascended to become headmaster. In total, he was at the English School for 26 years before retiring in 1874 at the age of 50 and settling in Monmouth.
Restoration with a Little Detective Work
For almost a century, Cumston Hall served as a centerpiece of Monmouth. The building was modernized over time, with updates in keeping with the times. A back addition was made to the library which expanded capacity.
But as the 20th century rolled on, it became harder to maintain the elaborate detail in Cumston Hall. Water damage piled up making a mess of the paintings. In 1934, some of the original decoration was even painted over.
The Friends of Cumston Hall formed in the 1990s and set out to restore Cumston Hall to its former grandeur. They hired painter Tony Castro of New Gloucester to perform the magic. Tony and his company painstakingly restored the space, cleaning and repainting Cochrane’s original detail work and murals. While doing the work, he discovered that some trim had been put up around a door frame which, when removed, uncovered a narrow strip of decorative painting. They then found an old black and white photo which showed that the decoration originally continued entirely around the entire theater wall. Using the uncovered section for colors and the photo for placement, they were able to reproduce the original. It’s thought that during the Depression, they covered the ornate strip with something easier to maintain.
Cumston Hall continues to serve most of the same functions it was designed for: town library, theater, and community hall. A number of performance companies use the space including the Theater at Monmouth, Monmouth Academy Drama, and Monmouth Community Players. The former “caucus room” is used by the Scouts, for blood drives, quilting groups, and as a voting location. The Hall brings in live music, and the local school uses the facilities. The massive parking lot is used as the finish line for the annual AppleFest 5K race which is a fundraiser run by the Friends of Cumston Hall. The octagonal attached building, which originally was the Monmouth town office, is now used by the Theater at Monmouth as an office.
They are currently raising money to upgrade the theater lighting system to be LED-based.