BATH — The last time Clara Hutchins set foot in the John E.L. Huse Memorial School, she did so as a first grade teacher.

On July 27, she was one of over 100 people who showed up to tour the recently completed $7.2 million project that transformed the former school into 59 apartments. The building was owned by the city until the Szanton Company, a Portland-based development company, purchased it for $145,000 to construct a blend of market rate and income-restricted apartments.

“It’s a lot different, of course,” said Hutchins, who taught first graders for 29 years. She said she would welcome living in the former school. “It was already like a second home to me. I was sad to hand in my keys when I retired.”

The Szanton Company was granted highly-competitive tax credits, including those for the building’s historical nature. Built in 1942 on the cusp of the United State’s entry into World War II, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places as one of two remaining schools constructed thanks to the “Lanham Act.”

The Lanham Act of 1940 facilitated “expanded national defense activities, most notably defense manufacturing and increased personnel at military bases.” The Huse School served the children of Bath Iron Works employees who flooded to the city to help in the war effort.

That history was part of a presentation given by Nathan Szanton, principal of the company. He gave attendees an overview of the building’s importance to Bath’s history, and told of the man it was named after, John E.L. Huse.

A pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor to the Air Force), Huse was president of his class all four years and was beloved by his peers. He was shot down over Indonesia, and was one of the first casualties of WWII from Maine.

History, said Szanton, was important to handling of the building, and it shows in the decor. The exterior remains as close to the appearance of the original building as possible, with the original sign back in place above the entrance. Inside, small touches like old intercoms from the days it was a school, chalkboards in apartments where they once served classrooms, children’s drawings along the wall, and an old scoreboard let visitors know the story of the building.

Children’s paintings from the building’s former purpose as a school line the hallways at Huse School Apartments. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Some apartments even utilize the original flooring, particularly the larger apartments in the gymnasium. The former stage is also intact, with curtains hanging high above denoting what the space once was.

In total, the building has 48 one-bedroom; six two-bedroom; and five studio apartments. Of them, 29 were built in the existing school, and 30 were built in the new wing. Forty-three of the apartments have been set aside for households earning at or below 60 percent of the median area income.

State Senator Eloise Vitelli was present to commemorate the opening of the building, and said that income-restricted housing like the Huse School is important for the economic future of the area. “It still takes people to fuel economic activity. We need people, and working people need affordable places to live.”

John Gallagher, director of Maine State Housing Authority, was also present to congratulate those involved with the project. He pointed out the rising costs of housing in areas like Portland, and said Bath is on the “frontier” of those increases. Buildings like the Huse School, he said, will become important in the future.

All that was good news to Hutchins, and while she won’t teach any more classes in the building, she said she was glad it’s being put to a use. “It’s good that they’re not letting it fall apart,” she said.