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Patrick McCarthy, the director of the city’s Central Services Department, holds a piece of the ornate plaster molding that fell from the ceiling in Memorial Hall to exemplify the need for repairs in the building.
Photo credit: Northampton Open Media

NORTHAMPTON — Compounding safety concerns at a historic building next to City Hall has forced the city of Northampton to take necessary steps to pursue emergency repairs.

During its regular meeting on March 7, the Northampton City Council approved the appropriation of $426,218 from the city’s Stabilization Fund for emergency repairs to the iconic Memorial Hall after a recent report found “escalating structural issues” in the building, which is located at 240 Main St.

Built in the 1880s to honor veterans who fought in the U.S. Civil War, Memorial Hall has spent its existence as a library, museum and also home to an American Legion.

Today, the building houses many departments including Veterans Services, Human Resources, Mail Services, Northampton Public Schools Central Services and Arts and Culture central services.

Recent structural deficiencies, however, have become so ubiquitous that the building’s side entrance leading to Pulaski Park had to close because of risk of falling material from the building facade, and now, the city is taking emergency measures to address the issues.

“While Central Services has worked to maintain the building, there is now significant structural work outside of what we can handle internally, and there is specialized masonry and foundation work that needs to be done because it is compromising structural components of the building, which in turn is leading to significant safety issues,” said Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra during the March 7 council meeting.

According to the order presented to the council, recent escalating structural issues inside the building include “significantly compromised” lolly columns in the basement, sagging on the first floor creating separation from baseboards and flooring and falling chunks of granite and brick near the side entrance.

This past February, approximately 4 feet of ornate plaster molding fell 15 feet to the ground and landed next to a staff person’s desk in the Veteran Services office, according to Patrick McCarthy, the director of the Central Services Department for Northampton.

During the meeting, McCarthy held a brick up over Zoom to show the public and the council a piece that had fell from the ceiling back in February.

“It’s actually heavier than a brick,” McCarthy said of the substance. “I would say about 4 feet of this fell.”

In the spring of 2023, the city commissioned Gale Architects to complete a comprehensive evaluation of Memorial Hall’s building envelope, where they found decades of deferred maintenance. Gale submitted their report in November 2023, which detailed the significant deficiencies in the building.

Because of the report, Central Services submitted the project in the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan and applied for Community Preservation Act funding with the goal of phasing the repairs across those five years.
The significance of the building’s damage, however, means the city is escalating its response to the issues at hand.

Marc Loranger, a senior associate and partner with Gale Associates, pointed to a few different reasons why the damage is so profound. He said that water infiltration has “jacked” the upper portion of the building upward due to steel corrosion and noted how continual stormwater has cascaded over the masonry, which has caused a lot of deterioration.

Without a workable drainage system, water from storms or thawing snow has seeped into the building over the years and has caused damage to the building’s foundation.

The total amount to repair the entire building is $2.7 million, according to McCarthy, but the urgency of the situation caused the city to appropriate the over $426,000 from the city’s General Stabilization Fund to address emergency repairs.

According to a presentation by Loranger, the city appropriation will immediately fund masonry stabilization and repair, as well as structural stabilization like arch repair and replacement in the basement and brick and mortar repairs associated with it, among other immediate repairs.

“The smaller investment would solve those areas that we discussed; I will not use the word permanently, but in a long-term fashion,” Loranger said.

After asking many technical questions about the building, the City Council eventually voted unanimously to accept the appropriation. Ward 3 City

Councilor Quaverly Rothenberg, however, lambasted the mayor’s office for bringing this order to the council only a couple of days before the meeting.
She said she would raise a charter objection in the future if another order were rushed.

“This process has got to be improved,” Rothenberg said. “Get it on our radar sooner or if it’s really last minute, silver platter with all the information we need. We cannot drop everything in our lives and go hunting it down.”

Alan Wolf, the mayor’s chief of staff, responded by saying the office has always followed the process of putting forward an order and coming to council with the appropriate experts ready to speak in the form of presentations.

He added that this process has been trusted by prior councils and emphasized the urgency of this particular situation by noting how Memorial Hall “could fall down” in its current state.

“We come to council prepared to give the information you ask for,” Wolf said. “It’s highly irregular to say we’re not providing information. We’re trying to get the work of the people of Northampton done.”

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