The couple’s plan to turn a Portland church into a cocktail bar fell through for months because of a charter that forbids “sinful” acts

PORTLAND, Maine – Johanna and Steve Corman couldn’t believe their luck.

They had found an old church on the city’s peninsula that they could buy and convert into the cocktail bar of their dreams.

The mortgage would actually be lower than any storefront they could rent in the restaurant-crammed Old Port. With the real estate market soaring at the moment, it seemed like a miracle worthy of the 133-year-old church.

Then, two weeks before closing, their plans were thwarted by an unusual clause in the deed.

Buried deep within the original title deed was handwritten language forbidding the church’s use of anything deemed sinful, which terrified her bank’s insurers. It took some novel legal maneuvers by the Cormans’ attorney to finally smooth things over between the long-dead church founders and the very much alive moneylenders.

The charter aimed to ban uses such as instrumental music, choral concerts, politics and all “devices of uninspired men”.

A car drives past a former church on the corner of Weymouth Street and Congress Street in Portland on January 6, 2022. The 19th-century building will be the new home of the former Old Port cocktail bar, Vena’s Fizz House. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I’ve had a few sleepless nights, that’s for sure,” said Johanna Corman, who was standing last week at the former church on the corner of Weymouth Street and Congress Street, where she and her husband plan to open the new Vena’s Fizz House by the summer.

The white church with steeples was built in 1889 and housed a United Church of Christ congregation until 2015. That year she was sold to a group of Baptists for a single dollar. That congregation broke up last year and the church was put on the market.

The Church of Christ’s original charter specifically barred selling the property to anyone who does not operate it as a church. It specifically forbade, along with unholy music, “feasts of acquisition of money,” “elections,” or anything “not clearly taught by the express precept or accepted example of the apostles of Jesus Christ as set forth in the scriptures.” called the New Testament.”

The bank’s underwriters assumed the Fizz House was likely mixing martinis, Manhattans and Sloe Gin fizzes – which was bad news for the Cormans.

Moreover, the time frame of the act extended “even to the return of our Lord.”

The Cormans turned to their attorney for help.

“He wrote a 12-page legal statement and the bank went through with it,” Steve Corman said.

Her attorney argued that the deed’s own general statements were her downfall, based on accepted legal rules against ages.

Broadly speaking, the eternal rules state that a person’s interest in real estate ends 21 years after their death. The purpose of the rule is to prevent people from drafting transfer agreements that could control the fate of land 100 or 200 years after their deaths – just like the Cormans’ case.

Scriptures exhorting moderation grace the wall at the future home of cocktail bar Vena’s Fizz on Congress Street in Portland on January 6, 2022. The bar takes up residence in a 19th-century church building on the corner of Weymouth Street. Photo credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

These types of rules are usually limited to wills and trusts, not deeds, but their attorney’s novel argument was persuasive enough for the bank.

Now that peace has been restored, the couple are finally moving forward with their renovation plans.

The Cormans opened their original Vena’s Fizz House on Fore Street in 2013, serving non-alcoholic mocktails and mixology accessories like bitters.

Until March 2015, the Cormans also offered regular, alcoholic cocktails. Four years ago, the company expanded to include a nationwide wholesale bitters production and distribution operation based in Westbrook.

But in early 2021, the Cormans decided to permanently close the Old Port retail store and cocktail lounge.

“It was partly due to COVID. It was a very small room,” said Johanna, “and we grew too small anyway.”

They immediately began looking for a new storefront, but came across Portland’s astronomical rents. The cheapest store fronts they could track down were around $6,000 to $9,000 a month with nothing going on.

“It was crazy down in the Old Port,” said Johanna. “And it’s already so saturated with restaurants.”

Then, last spring, the church came on the market. When they did the math, they found that their mortgage would only be about $2,000 a month — far less than any downtown rent.

Although they agreed to purchase the building last June, the tick on the deed held everything four months past their original closing date.

“This is the last little piece of Portland that hasn’t been revitalized,” said Johanna Corman. “It’s almost like we can start from scratch.”

The Baptists sold the pews before they left, but the Cormans said they plan to retain the building’s essential, church-like feel. The altar, for example, remains.

“I’m a notary,” said Steve Corman. “I will marry people here.”

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