Structural hazards close Pittsfield theater

Posted Nov. 25, 2008, at 8:10 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — If recent reports, studies and action are any indication, Pittsfield is literally falling apart.

Decades of deferred maintenance are taking their toll. First the aging swimming pool began leaking so badly that it couldn’t be fixed. Then it was discovered that the foundation of the public library was crumbling.

The town is scrambling to fund an expensive plan to remove 30 years’ worth of sludge in the town’s wastewater treatment plant lagoons, and a study of the aging sewer system revealed a severely distressed system.

On top of all that, a town-backed study has revealed that the entire roof structure of the 93-year-old town-owned theater has been compromised, and the wooden trusses can no longer support the weight of the roof.

The situation is so dire that Pittsfield councilors agreed Tuesday night to close the theater to ensure the safety of patrons, and initiated a study to determine which repair out of several options would make the best sense.

In a report to councilors earlier this week, Sewall Engineering representatives said the roof “is visibly stressed beyond its load capacity and public use of the building should be suspended.”

The report further assessed that most of the wooden trusses supporting the roof “may not be relied upon for structural capacity.”

There have been problems with the flat roof leaking for decades, and Sewall said there is clear evidence of water damage in the attic space and throughout the walls of the theater. Workers were on the roof earlier this month, taking samples and actually removing parts to investigate the depth of the damage.

The council decided to study several options, including: replacing the roof at a cost of $250,000; building a new roof over the top of the existing one at a cost of $180,000; or renovating the existing roof at a cost of $220,000. The theater was closed due to safety concerns and would have to remain closed for up to five months while awaiting whichever repair plan is selected.

Meanwhile, Sewall’s report warned, town officials need to closely monitor the snow load on the existing roof and not let any more than 1 foot of snow buildup. In the past, town firefighters have often helped by shoveling the roof.

Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said a less expensive fix would be to install columns along the side, front and back walls. These columns would not block viewing but would support the structural steel, which has been compromised, Ruth said.

In addition, she said, the wooden trusses were cut many years ago when air conditioning was installed and are no longer structurally sound.

Ruth said the new study, at $9,000, would be funded through unappropriated surplus funds.

Also, theater manager Donna Dunphy is checking with state officials to see if the theater’s permits can be temporarily transferred to another location. If a suitable site could be found, Ruth said, the theater could operate at a remote location until all repairs are completed.

“This theater is such an important part of the town,’’ Ruth said.

Michelle Carr, a member of the town’s theater committee, said Monday that a major fundraising effort was about to be launched to provide for upgrades at the theater. The restroom is not handicapped-accessible, many of the seats are in disrepair and the theater marquee is in very poor shape.

“We’ll still go ahead with our fundraising plans,’’ Carr said. “I hate to say it but maybe this closure will help the community see how important this theater is to us.’’

Carr said local schools, the Egg Festival and other organizations often used the theater and its stage for community events. The theater also showed first-run movies each night for $3 and charged just $1 a person on Monday nights. “This is really unfortunate,’’ Carr said. ‘‘For many area people, going to the local community theater is their only entertainment, particularly during the winter months.’’

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