CHESTERTOWN — Every old building tells a story, and the Vincent and Leslie Prince Raimond Cultural Center at 101 Spring Ave. is no different.
Built in the early 1800s, it served as a private home for hundreds of years before being split up into office space and individual rooms to rent. Now it serves as a hub of arts and culture at the entrance to Chestertown.
Well, it will when it’s finished.
The exterior of the 5,000-square-foot building is completed, said Kent Cultural Alliance Director John Schratwieser, but the interior still needs some work. The KCA purchased the building in 2017.
“The interior of the space is definitely a victim of the Covid pandemic there’s no question about it, in both fundraising and in materials cost and in availability of contractors,” he said.
There is no electric, plumbing, or HVAC and some of the framing still has to be finished, but this does not mean that Schratwieser does not have a plan.
On the first floor the entire right side of the building will hold a 1,000-square-foot exhibition, gathering, education and performing space. The left side will be a private office, conference room and four 12x12 artists’ studios, including one that is soundproof for musicians. There will even be a hydraulic lift installed to make sure the building is ADA compliant, which was very important to Schratwieser.
“I wanted this building to be accessible to everyone,” he said.
The entire second floor of the building will be living space for visiting artists. There will be a common room, a full kitchen, a laundry room and four private rooms with attached bathrooms.
The residency program, which is new for the KCA, will be six weeks long. Each residency will have a social- and civic-minded theme. The artists will work closely with public schools and local organizations teaching classes in their field. At the end of the program, each artist will have a one- or two-week exhibition to talk to the community about their finished product.
“The whole purpose of the future of the KCA is the concept of using the arts in broader conversations. The art is the tool or pathway to a different end, it’s not the end product itself,” Schratwieser said.
Making these visions a reality costs a lot of money and the pandemic has not helped things on that front.
“We just found out in April that we did not receive a large state grant that we had applied for. When we went back to them (the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development) to talk about the application they basically said the only reason you didn’t get it is because that money was moved to capital projects related to emergency use for the pandemic,” he said.
The KCA was encouraged to reapply for the grant and is hoping to hear in October or November if they were successful.
The total cost of the project is $2.2 million. The first $1 million the KCA raised was spent on the purchase of the building itself, redoing the foundation and the exterior. That leaves $1.2 million left to go.
Schratwieser said that by July the KCA should have $450,000, the grant they are hoping to be awarded from the state is $350,000, which will leave them with “$450,00 to raise in a final push from the community.”
“We will launch the final push for that campaign in about a month. I’m hopeful, but I don’t think we’ll start construction of the inside until December or January,” he said. “Optimistically we’ll open on July 1 of 2022.
“We still believe it was totally worth it because we preserved a historic building in town and created a new gateway for the Arts and Entertainment District, for the Main Street district, for the Historic District, and a new launch pad for the arts and culture economy in Kent County. Many things will happen from here that will reach to all parts of the county and that’s what’s really important to us,” he added.
Just how important and historic the building is, Schratwieser didn’t know until after the KCA had bought it and he received a call from Adam Goodheart, the Hodson-Trust Griswold director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.
“This building is one of the few standing buildings that is directly related to a published escaped slave narrative,” Schratwieser said.
Isaac Mason was born in 1822 in Kent County. His father was a free man, but his mother was enslaved.
When Isaac was 15, his father was successful in buying his mother and sister but could not buy Mason. In the 1840s Mason was delivered to the house on Spring Avenue, now the site of the KCA, to be a house slave where he was regularly beaten.
Mason escaped from the house while out on a delivery and made his way to freedom. He published his autobiography, “The Life of Isaac Mason, A Slave,” in 1893.
“We are particularly grateful to Adam Goodheart and his students down at the Starr Center because they are the ones who have done the research on this house and this building,” Schratwieser said. “It’s been fascinating as we uncover the building and rebuild it, we are uncovering the stories and we want to try and rebuild those stories that honor the sacrifice and the history.”
The KCA, in partnership with the Starr Center and the Chesapeake Heartland Project has commissioned Marlon Saunders to write a new musical theater piece about Mason’s life. It is expected to premier in November at the Garfield Center for the Arts. The KCA also commissioned a portrait of Mason by local artist Jason Patterson.
It will hang in the lobby of the newly renovated building. The lobby will be dedicated as the Isaac Mason Lobby: “To remember Isaac and his suffering and the life he had here in Chestertown and in Kent County,” Schratwieser said.
For more information about the KCA visit kent culture.org.