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With Raise Blown, New Roof in Works at Merriweather

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The two-week roof raising project during the fourth winter of off-season renovations at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was close to completion.

And while close may count in horseshoes and with grenades, it sure didn’t count in this case. The original roof of the 52-year-old venue was only a couple of feet beneath where it was to rest — 20 feet higher than where it was at the end of last year’s concert season — and was nearly set to be secured for, it was hoped, another half-century.

However, a cold front with showers burst through in the early morning hours of Jan. 13, accompanied by winds that were measured at approximately 45 miles per hour at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. Blustery might not be a strong enough word to describe the gusts that may have been “of greater or lesser power elsewhere in the region,” said Brian LaSorsa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, as they look to have contributed to roof plummeting around 2 a.m.

That made the topic of building a new roof, which had been broached years ago, a sudden necessity — and a necessity with a tighter time frame.

While the engineers, architects, inspectors and insurers are working to identify the root cause of the mishap, I.M.P’s Seth Hurwitz, Merriweather’s promoter, immediately vowed the season will go on as scheduled. Five shows had been confirmed by press time, with the first night of the annual M3 Festival the first up on Friday, May 4.

Human Element

While the construction team has not set a completion date for the new roof, it got on the job after “a very brief period of mourning,” said Ian Kennedy, executive director with the Downtown Columbia Arts & Culture Commission.

“There had never been any replacement of the roof, just ongoing maintenance,” said Kennedy. “We had to start this phase of the project by clearing the old seats out of the pavilion so we could get the 20 hydraulic lifts in place, then other checks out of the way, before the crew lifted the detached roof the first inch.”

That part of the project started, in earnest, in early January, and the obviously loosened roof stayed in place for a little more than a week. But, even with all of the careful planning and engineering, the plans fell apart; or in this case, dropped about 50 feet.

“The human process is still imperfect, and accidents happen,” said Kennedy, “but until we know more from the investigation, we can’t say for sure why. The crew has been climbing through the wreckage, will make their report, and we’ll go from there.”

Today, the focus is on getting ready for the season. “The first night of M3,” he said, “is less about three months away.”

‘Pretty Simple’

Early in the damage assessment, the crew was out and moving the roofing materials and steel supports so construction of the new roof can begin as soon as possible. Costello Construction, of Columbia, has picked out the wood from the old roof that it believes can be incorporated into the new roof.

“And what they can’t use, we’ll use elsewhere the pavilion,” Kennedy said.

The timing of the collapse, “in a strange way,” said Audrey Schaefer, spokesperson for I.M.P., “was ideal. We have plenty of time to build a new roof, which will look just like the old one. Using the wood that was on the façade is a sentimental thing, since the venue was designed by [famed architect] Frank Gehry. It also says a great deal that people are so passionate about the pavilion’s look. It’s part of people’s past and it says, ‘We love it.’”

Schaefer added that the architects went right to work that Saturday morning, and by Sunday night the new specs “were pretty much sealed. They’re not wasting time looking back; they’re just looking forward at a pretty simple construction project.”

To make the point, she simply referred to the much more intensive construction during the past two winters, in those cases of the new stage and backstage areas. “A roof is a pretty simple exercise by comparison,” she said. “We’re as lucky as we can be.”

Said Hurwitz, Others

Gary Bongiovanni, president of Pollstar, an organization that covers the concert industry, expressed confidence that I.M.P. and the construction crew will make a figurative molehill out of the mountain of debris.

While there have been rare occasions of stages collapsing, etc., in the concert industry, the destruction at Merriweather was a new one. “The circumstances behind the collapse of the roof may not be unprecedented, but I haven’t heard of an amphitheater roof collapsing, even during a renovation,” he said.

But he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. “While there are less than four months until the first scheduled concert of the season,” Bongiovanni said, “unless there are any permitting and approval issues, I.M.P and the other stakeholders at Merriweather should be able to construct the new roof without too much difficulty.”

Today, all concerned are eager to see it, “but it’s still early” to talk about when, Kennedy said. “Right now, it’s about rebuilding the steel supports, as well as assessing any possible damage to the seating bowl. And Hurwitz offered this update just before press time: “It turns out that the roof is going to be much easier [to build] than we thought, so opening on time is not even close to an issue,” he said, adding, “there are no shows earlier than M3 being considered at this time.”

After that’s done, the crew at Merrriweather will know more. For now they know that, although they “don’t have an exact schedule,” he said, “we have a deadline.”