It's looking more and more like the final act for the condemned home of the Lewiston Civic Theatre will be a tragedy.
According to an email from theater Executive Director Beth Larson to Lewiston Building Official John Smith, the high costs of securing the 109-year-old former Methodist Church is leading the theater to explore its options for leveling the historic structure.
"As you suggested I will contact and request bids for demolition in hopes to retrieve salvage in order to not have a cost associated with this action, and possibly have something more out of it," Larson wrote.
Ron Hewett, president of Lewiston general contractor Kenaston Corp., told theater officials it will cost at least $320,000 to shore up and secure the large roof truss that failed recently, leading the city to condemn the structure. Larson also told Smith that Hewett estimated it would take between $4 million and $5 million to completely repair the building, including the stone work.
Hewett said that upper estimate was a wild guess that shouldn't be relied upon. But after ticking off all the systems in the building that would need to be overhauled or replaced - electrical, mechanical, the remaining roof structure, the roof surface, masonry and the likely requirement of a sprinkler system - he said the total could exceed that amount.
On top of that, Hewett said there is a risk factor involved with doing any kind of work on the building. Smith has said there is a danger of collapse, and Eighth Street to the west of the building has been closed since Aug. 10 when an employee discovered the broken truss and the city declared the building unsafe.
No one can provide the assurances he would need to confidently send a crew in to do the work, even if the theater could come up with the money, Hewett said.
"If you can guarantee me that the Earth isn't going to shake, or the building isn't going to get touched by somebody running off the road and hitting it, or some small tremor," he said. Otherwise, "You could have the whole thing in the basement, on you."
There is therefore no way he would send his personnel into a situation where he could not guarantee their safety.
"You've got a half a dozen men in there, and you could be sending them to an early grave," he said. "It's a real scary thought when you think about it. There's always a degree of risk when you're building something or working on it. But you always have a safety factor."
Shelly Renzelman, chairwoman of the theater's board of directors, said she has been calling other contractors to see if any are willing to assess the damaged truss and offer a second opinion.
"We're still hoping that something can be done," Renzelman said, noting demolition was never the board's first choice, even though it has always been on the table.
Renzelman also addressed a May 11 report on the building's crumbling masonry obtained by the Lewiston Tribune on Wednesday. In addition to documenting the poor condition of the stonework, masonry contractor John Lambert of Salt Lake City noted that Fred Walters, an architect from the Idaho Preservation Trust, has been warning the theater for a decade about fixing the dangerously deteriorated sandstone.
And a 2010 report from Brotnov Architecture and Planning in Clarkston concluded repairs to the masonry were "critical and require immediate attention," according to Lambert.
"It is my understanding that neither Fred Walters' (nor) Brotnov Architecture's recommendations have been heeded," Lambert wrote. "It appears as if many areas of unstable stone could be easily dislodged by hand only, without the use of tools. Fallen stone pieces were observed on the ground during our inspection."
Renzelman blamed high turnover with board members over the years, coupled with the high cost of repairs, for the inaction. She said the current board launched a capital campaign in February in an attempt to raise funds to deal with the issues, but couldn't say why past board members didn't act on warnings from experts.
"I can't address why the decisions were not made in the past," she said, noting she has been on the board for only three and a half years. "Should different decisions have been made? Probably. That building was not in fantastic shape when the Civic Theatre acquired it, and it hasn't improved since then."
Renzelman speculated that over the 40-plus years the theater has owned the building, various iterations of the board were faced with a recurring question.
"Are we in the business of theater, or are we in the business of historic preservation?" she said. "Unfortunately, sometimes the building has lost that choice."
Renzelman said "every spare cent" the theater had went into repairs.
Smith said the theater basically has two choices when it comes to demolition. The first would be to just knock the building down and haul it away in dump trucks. But the theater can probably find a contractor willing to write off the cost of the demolition in exchange for salvaging the quality materials inside the building, like its large timber framing and stonework.
"That all has a value on the market as a building material for use in other structures," Smith said. "If they have to take it down, I hope they would recycle the building materials for future projects. That would be nice to see that history go somewhere else that could be pointed to."
A hazardous materials assessment must be done in advance of any demolition work, he added, and things like asbestos and lead paint would have to be abated if they are found.
Steve Carlton of Steve Carlton Construction in Lewiston demolished the remains of the Bollinger Hotel in downtown Lewiston after it burned in 1997. That job cost about $100,000, Carlton recalled, and he estimates a simple demolition of the theater building would be comparable. It might take a week or two to finish if people and equipment could be quickly mobilized.
Carlton said it would take specialized equipment to safely take down the building, like a crane with a "clam" attachment to lift the large stones from the upper walls. Once that is done, the rest of the job could be handled with a standard excavator.
Mills may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2266.