Couple's plan to turn a Portland church into a cocktail bar derailed for months by deed barring 'sinful' acts

Jan. 13—PORTLAND, Maine — Johanna and Steve Corman couldn't believe their luck.

They'd found an old church on the city's peninsula that they could afford to 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-saturated Old Port. Given the current, soaring real estate market, it seemed like a miracle worthy of the 133-year-old house of worship.

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

Buried deep in the original property deed was handwritten language barring the church's use for anything that would be considered sinful, which spooked their bank's underwriters. It took some novel legal maneuvering from the Cormans' attorney to eventually smooth things out between the long-dead church founders and very-much-alive money lenders.

The deed sought to bar uses including instrumental music, choir concerts, politics and all "devices of uninspired men."

"I had some sleepless nights, that's for sure," said Johanna Corman, standing in the former church at the corner of Weymouth and Congress Streets last week where she and her husband plan to open the new Vena's Fizz House by summer.

The white, steepled church sanctuary was built in 1889, and housed a United Church of Christ congregation until 2015. That year, it was sold to a group of Baptists for a single dollar. That congregation dissolved last year and the church was put on the market.

The original Church of Christ deed expressly ruled out selling the property to anyone not operating it as a church. It expressly forbade, along with unholy music, "festivals for the getting of money," "voting" or anything "not plainly taught by the express precept or approved example of the apostles of Jesus Christ as the same are set forth in the holy writings called the New Testament."

The bank's underwriters figured that likely included the Fizz House mixing martinis, Manhattans and sloe gin fizzes — which was bad news for the Cormans.

What's more, the deed's timeframe extended "even unto the coming of our Lord."

The Cormans sought help from their attorney.

"He wrote a 12-page legal statement and the bank went for it," Steve Corman said.

Their attorney reasoned the deed's own broad statements were its downfall, based on accepted legal rules against perpetuities.

Broadly, perpetuities rules state that someone's interest in a property ends 21 years after their death. The purpose of the rule is to prevent folks from drafting transfer agreements that could control the destiny of land 100 or 200 years after they are gone — just as in the Cormans' case.

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

Now, with peace 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 supplies like bitters.

By March 2015, the Cormans were offering regular, alcohol-fueled cocktails as well. Four years ago, the business expanded to include a national wholesale bitters production and sales operation, based in Westbrook.

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

"It was partly due to COVID. It was a very small space," Johanna said, "and we were outgrowing it anyway."

They immediately started looking for a new storefront but ran into Portland's astronomical rents. The cheapest storefronts they could locate hovered around $6,000 to $9,000 per month with nothing included.

"It was insane down in the Old Port," Johanna said. "And it's already so saturated with restaurants."

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

Though they agreed to purchase the building last June, the deed snag held everything up for four months past their original closing date.

"This is the last little part of Portland that hasn't been revitalized," Johanna Corman said. "It's almost like we can start from scratch."

The Baptists sold the church pews before they departed but the Cormans said they plan to keep the building's essential, church-like feel. The altar, for example, is staying.

"I'm a notary," Steve Corman said. "I'm going to marry people here."