Option proposed for filling in opera house basement

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On Oct. 23, structural engineer Todd Birkel presented a plan that would use controlled low strength material (CLSM) to safely and efficiently fill in the basement of the Sullivan Opera House building. The building’s partially-collapsed first floor could then be removed, allowing for continued rehabilitation. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Over the last few years, work has continued—slowly but surely—to ready the Sullivan Opera House building  at 252-254 Main St., in McGregor, for potential re-use.

However, the state of the partially-collapsed first floor has posed an obstacle to further rehabilitation.

“Before the building’s rehabbed, the first thing that needs to be done is to repair that floor,” said Duane Boelman, McGregor’s deputy clerk and economic development lead, who also aids the city’s historic preservation commission.

“Anyone who takes a look inside can see the collapsed floor,” he continued. “It looks like it’s falling down, even though we have an engineering report that says it’s structurally sound.”

Earlier this year, the historic preservation commission, with the help of a $6,200 certified local government grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, hired structural engineer Todd Birkel to design a stabilization plan for the floor.

On Oct. 23, Birkel presented that plan to the commission, proposing the use of controlled low strength material (CLSM) to safely and efficiently fill in the building’s basement.

CLSM is a type of weak, runny concrete mix used in construction for non-structural purposes. 

“The material is normally used to fill in trenches. This is something you can pump in to stabilize things,” Birkel explained. “It flows wherever it needs to go. It’s a flexible material.”

Using sand or another self-compacting granular material would not reach everywhere it needed to go, he noted.

Birkel said using CLSM will also limit the number of people in the building.

“You can just stand back and let the material do what it’s meant to do,” he said. “Right now, it’s not a safe place you want to go into to extract materials.” 

Some of the debris, he added, can simply be buried, particularly if it’s too difficult or dangerous to remove.

Boelman said the CLSM can be built up in layers, allowing the old floor to be extracted piece by piece, with limited pressure on the building’s walls.

Once completed, the material will provide a nice platform and surface for people to work on, Birkel said. It will be dense enough that a finished floor can be placed on top of it, yet flexible enough to allow for the future movement of utilities, if need be.

The engineer’s estimated cost to fill in the basement is $251,000.

“The building’s basically three storefronts, 2,500 square feet each,” Boelman said. “It will take a huge amount of material just to fill it.”

There has been some interest in the building, which was originally constructed in 1877. Timothy J. (T.J.) Sullivan purchased the building in 1905 and, feeling there was a need for an opera house in the community, quickly remodeled the second floor to become the Sullivan Opera House. 

Several years ago, the city of McGregor took over ownership of the building, which had sat empty and fallen into disrepair over the past 20 years, after housing a hardware store on the lower level and apartments upstairs.

“We have had a developer look at it,” Boelman said. “He has some interest in developing a plan to see if it’s feasible.”

In the meantime, grant funding will continued to be pursued. Boelman said a non-profit has also been formed, and the next step is filing for tax-exempt status.

“The building’s not being ignored,” he said. “There’s a lot going on in the background. I’m optimistic it can start moving forward a bit.”

Losing the opera house, Boelman commented, would be a blow. 

“We’ve already lost some buildings,” he said, “and when you have a row of buildings, the more gaps and bigger gaps you have, it fractures the downtown. When the buildings stop, people stop [going down the street]. We really need to keep it.”

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