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New owner shows off Public Square’s Lincoln Building

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Standing in the nearly vacant five-story Public Square landmark Thursday, Gary C. Beasley remembered helping his father repaint some of the suites in the Lincoln Building during the 1970s.

In those days, the defunct Lincoln League was still an active organization, where members talked politics of the day while sitting in overstuffed leather sofas and chairs in the fourth-floor clubroom. These days, just a long wooden portable bar remains. On Thursday morning, a group of about 15 city officials and members of Advantage Watertown took a tour of the 150-year-old structure at 89-99 Public Square. Local businessman Brian H. Murray bought the downtown structure for $500,000 from a Long Island corporation, 89-99 Public Square Properties LLC, whose principal partner was Allan Hillel.

Mr. Murray, who has purchased a number of buildings in and around Watertown during the past few years, arranged the walk-through to “get them to understand the scope and space and opportunity for the city of Watertown,” he said afterward.

Closing the deal right before Christmas, Mr. Murray has focused on stabilizing the building from further deterioration, figuring out how to fix a leaky roof and getting the boiler working again. It’s too soon to have more definitive plans on how he will restore the building to its glorious past or how much it will cost, he said.

Financing for the project remains the biggest obstacle, he said.

Over the next month, he will discuss the project with local development corporations, Neighbors of Watertown Inc. and the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency to see how they can help seek state and federal funding.

He purchased the building — which consists of nine storefronts, 17 offices and 16 apartments on the upper floors — with Mark S. Purcell, who owns a local construction company.

With hopes of beginning the renovations next year, Mr. Murray has hired an architect, who will put together some drawings for the project.

Totaling more than 50,000 square feet, the five floors consist of different-sized suites, which he envisions to be used for “commercial space, small businesses, startups, entrepreneurs and artists.”

Having not been in the building for several years until Thursday, Mr. Beasley said it will take a lot of work to redevelop, but he expects the new owner will be able to pull off the project. The building’s condition could have been much worse, he said.

“I’m surprised it’s in the good shape it is,” said Mr. Beasley, executive director of Neighbors of Watertown.

Mr. Murray, a business professor at Jefferson Community College, also owns the former Agricultural Insurance Co. building at 215 Washington St., and recently purchased the lower level of the Stream International building on Arsenal Street, the nearby Top of the Square Plaza and Palmer Street and College Heights apartments.

Most recently, he acquired the former Hospice Foundation of Jefferson County Inc. building at 425 Washington St. for $350,000, which he plans to renovate and lease for office space.

“So far, he really has a pretty good track record,” said Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Local Development Corp. and an Advantage Watertown member.

Mr. Rutherford said the WLDC — also known as the Watertown Trust — has wished for someone to take over the building, noting its importance to downtown and Public Square. Mr. Murray plans to tell the WLDC board about his plans next week.

In the first-floor lobby, a picture of Abraham Lincoln is still displayed above the elevator, which, along with the stairwells, will have to be replaced to meet building codes. The photo of the 16th president presumably was placed there by the Lincoln League, a private club whose members were affiliated with the Republican Party from 1892 until its membership steadily declined and it finally disbanded a decade ago.

A yoga business once occupied a third-floor suite and the Greater Watertown Senior Citizens club was on the floor below, where dances were held in the wide-open space that housed the club.

An upright piano stands against a wall in the former seniors club with a sign that reads “Solid Gold Dancers” hanging nearby from the ceiling. Another sign lists club members who owed dues. A small cardboard box sits on a card table with several sets of keys inside.

“It looks like they just walked away and left things,” said Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham.




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