The Lewiston Civic Theatre’s Normal Hill building was condemned Wednesday, Aug. 10 and a section of street closed after city officials declared the historic building at risk of collapsing.Theater volunteers hastily carted out lights, framed posters, T-shirts and photos, whatever they could carry, before the doors were locked by early afternoon.
On Tuesday, an employee was investigating water dripping upstairs after recent rainstorms when the person discovered one of the six wooden trusses in the attic appeared broken, said Shelly Renzelman, president of the theater’s board of directors.
Renzelman and theater Executive Director Beth Larson contacted a construction company, which investigated and advised them to contact the city because the building was at risk of collapsing.
“Water infiltration over the years on the building has caused some damage to the roof structure that jeopardizes the whole building,” said city of Lewiston Building Official John Smith, who declared the structure a safety threat.
Eighth Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues was closed because the truss failure allows the building to move and “will ultimately cause a failure of the west-facing wall,” according to a statement put out by the city later Wednesday afternoon.
The theater is in the midst of rehearsals for its fall musical, “Oliver!,” and Renzelman said the show will go on.
“We’re going to keep going,” Renzelman said. “We just have to be creative about it.”
Alternate locations for rehearsals, business operations and performances are being considered and people with options are welcome to get in touch, she said. Theater employees are still answering phone calls and running the website.
“It’s just a change of address, even if right now that address is a cardboard box under the bridge,” she said.
The 1907 building, the former Methodist Episcopal Church, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been home to the nonprofit theater that owns it for decades. According to the nomination form for its historic designation, “it is architecturally significant as one of the best and best-preserved examples of early 20th century church architecture in Lewiston; it is a handsome and imposing example of a generally Richardsonian Romanesque style.”
The cost to maintain the massive sandstone structure has always been a challenge. Since the building is designated as historic, work must be done to period standards. The theater, which receives $32,200 in annual financial support from the city, spent several thousand dollars over the past several years replacing crumbling stained-glass windows. Members were in the process of raising money to pay for a new roof, expected to cost between $110,000 and $160,000.
Stone masonry work is also needed. Renzelman said theater officials were told that would start at $100,000 for someone to begin the job and determine the extent of labor required.
The broken truss is a new and very serious problem, she said. She and Larson will be meeting with structural engineers and city officials to decide their next step. She was told repairs could easily begin at $500,000.
Smith called the condemnation “friendly” and likened the situation to that of the Hurlbut Mansion, another historic Lewiston building that faced serious structural issues. The mansion was declared “substandard and dangerous” by the city in 2015 but was back in good standing this spring after its owners, the Lewis-Clark Early Childhood Program, worked to fix some of its problems.
“If the owner and an engineering company come up with a solution and repair the issue, then the city will remove the condemnation. Until then, this is necessary for public safety,” Smith said in a news release.
While the future of the theater’s building is uncertain, the future of the group is not, Renzelman said.
“I’d like to remind everybody that the heart of the theater is its people and not its location,” she said.