By Jennika Baines
Sun Assoc. Editor
Clean up has begun on the site of the former St. Louis Church, which collapsed in the City of Oswego on the afternoon of Sunday, July 25. The building, located on a busy corner in the city, tumbled in on itself under the heavy rains that fell during Oswego’s annual Harborfest.
St. Louis was closed in 2000 and the sale of the building to the Oswego Arts Collaborative was within weeks of being finalized.
The organization, which promotes arts in the community, was looking for a place to use as a performing arts center, and wanted the St. Louis building because of its central location. They hoped to retain the historic integrity of the building as much as possible in their renovations.
“It was a miracle that nobody was hurt, with 100,000 people in town for Harborfest,” said Murray Gould, chair of the facilities committtee for the Oswego Arts Collaborative. “Harborfest is just across the street and the jazz concert had just let out. Plus the church is only 12 feet away from the road, which is Route 104, the main highway through the city.”
At the time, the middle section of the church had collapsed, but Father Timothy Elmer, chancellor of the diocese, said it was necessary to pull the rest down. “That night that it collapsed the City of Oswego said ‘It’s just got to come down, it’s not safe,’” he said.
Clean-up began on Aug. 2, and Father Elmer said it was estimated that the process would take approximately 10 to 12 days to complete. The site will be back-filled and grass will be planted, leaving behind an open lot.
Jim Merrill, director of risk management for the diocese, said the site didn’t pose any health risk to the public. “Luckily most of the asbestos that was in that church was in the flooring, which is not really friable, the type that flies in the air,” he said.
The diocese reached an agreement to sell the building to the Oswego Arts Collaborative last fall, and was in the process of getting court permission to go ahead with the sale.
Gould said his organization felt under pressure to finish the sale quickly. “We were increasingly concerned that something would happen to the building. I don’t mean that it would fall down, I mean that a Walgreen’s would come in and knock it down to build on that corner,” he said.
In the meantime, Gould had been in the building to take a look at the damage that needed repair. Though the roof had been patched as recently as late 2008 or early 2009, there was evidence of years’ worth of water damage to the ceiling, walls and columns.
“The fundamental problem was that the water fell off the roof and collected in the gutter, and it wasn’t a gutter like the one that hangs off the side of your house. The gutter went down through the walls — they’re called a Yankee gutter — and when the drain gets plugged, the water starts feeding into the walls and up under the shingles,” Gould said.
He knew that one of the support columns (not a decorative column in the nave of the church but more like a stud in the wall of a house, only much bigger) was completely rotted. “But you can’t really see what’s in there until you rip off all the sheetrock and the plaster,” he said.
Plaster had fallen off the walls in some places; there were damp spots in others. But there was no indication that the building would crumble under a heavy rainfall.
“The week before the collapse I was in the building with an experienced general contractor and an experienced structural engineer because we knew we had to fix things,” Gould said.
“We were in the building. We didn’t think the building was going to collapse. Let’s just put it this way: We wouldn’t have been in the darn building if we thought it was going to collapse. But we knew we had an issue to deal with.”