When a boat takes on water, you bail and then reseal. A symphony hall is a bit more complicated.
By the time the flood crested in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center—8 p.m. on Monday, May 3—the waters were of Titanic proportions. “We had twenty-four feet in the sub-basement and basement, over five million gallons,” says symphony general manager Mark Blakeman. “But that’s a static number, based on taking the square footage and calculating the volume. We were pumping water all weekend, so the amount is really a lot more.”
The rainbow arching over this “rain incident” was that the flood didn’t breach the concert hall. “Had the water reached the high-finish areas—the plaster ornament and wood floors—the repairs would have been much more costly,” Blakeman explains. “But it came close.”
Symphony president and CEO Alan Valentine describes the harrowing flood watch. The building’s engineering staff had placed a strip of blue tape on a step of the east staircase into the basement, he says. “They told us, ‘If it gets to the tape, it’s in the hall.’ All Monday, even though it had stopped raining, the river kept rising—and we were holding our breath. The flood finally capped out a foot from the tape.”
When the water watchers exhaled, they moved quickly to contain the moisture oozing up from below. “We couldn’t pump faster than the groundwater was receding, because we had to maintain equalized hydrostatic pressure between outside and inside,” so the structure wouldn’t collapse, Blakeman explains. “It took fourteen days to get all the water out of the sub-basement.”
Blakeman immediately organized a disaster relief team that grappled with dehumidification and the installation of vapor barriers to protect the most fragile resources. “Our music library, which contains scores marked by conductors from throughout the symphony’s history, is irreplaceable,” he says. “And the organ has wood pipes, as well as leather and felt elements. So we had to quarantine them.”
The final instrumental toll included two Steinway concert grand pianos, valued at $100,000 each, the $2.5 million organ’s blower pipes and console, and what’s called the “petting zoo” of instruments used for educational programs. Blakeman is confident that “we’ll find more great pianos; they’re out there.” He also notes that the original maker of the organ console is crafting a new one. And donations from the Gibson Foundation and KHS America, along with several individuals, have enabled the replacement of the “petting zoo.”
Blakeman says the flood wreaked the biggest havoc on what the concertgoer never sees: “the guts that make the building run, all the wiring and mechanical systems, fire monitors, security apparatus.” That’s because of the purpose-built nature of the structure. “To ensure the best possible acoustics, all the noise-making machinery was in the basement, to get it as far away from the concert hall as possible,” he says. “And it was all destroyed.”
The obsessive attention paid to acoustics, however, enabled the Schermerhorn to sustain no structural damage. To minimize the impact of distracting sounds, the concert hall is essentially a building-within-a-building resting on concrete caissons interlocking with bedrock. These features make the building “incredibly solid, dense,” Blakeman says. “One slab of concrete heaved and cracked and had to be replaced. But it was on grade, not structural.”
Before music could return to the hall, “miles of wire had to be re-pulled,” Blakeman says. Reinstalling new air handlers required engineering ingenuity. “The originals were two stories tall; they were lowered in by crane, and then the building was constructed around them,” he explains. That technique obviously wouldn’t work the second time around. The new handlers had to be assembled on site.
For the rehab, the symphony staff has been ably assisted by American Constructors, as well as engineers with Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, and TTL, Lee Company, American Commercial Industrial Electric, and architects with Earl Swensson Associates and Hastings Associates. “These were the people who built Schermerhorn for us in the first place,” Blakeman says. “They take great pride in the building and wanted to help us put it back together.”
The estimated price tag: approximately $40 million. Valentine says flood insurance will yield $10 million, with FEMA picking up 90 percent beyond that. Tapping the unrestricted endowment, which will ultimately be replaced by donations, will cover the $4 million gap.
When symphony lovers stream back into the Schermerhorn for the New Year’s Eve concert featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman, the hall will look the same as it did. More importantly, it will sound the same. Valentine expresses gratitude to the operators of other venues—TPAC, War Memorial, and Lipscomb University—“for going to sometimes extraordinary lengths to provide the symphony with places to play. But some season ticket holders didn’t use their tickets last fall, telling me, ‘We can’t bear to hear you anywhere else.’ The hall is so good, they’d gotten spoiled.”
Let the spoiling continue.
by Christine Kreyling
photos from: Steve Hall of Hedrich Blessing, Alan Poizner, & Sarah Rose Jones