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Academy of Music fire escape damage moves show out 

In this photo provided by Northampton building officials, the problem area on the Academy of Music fire escape is circled in black.

In this photo provided by Northampton building officials, the problem area on the Academy of Music fire escape is circled in black. Purchase photo reprints »

However, city officials say they are optimistic emergency, short-term repairs would allow for the Really Big Show, the final performance in the series on Feb. 24, to take place at the municipally owned Academy on Main Street, its traditional venue.

“That’s what we’re shooting for,” said David Pomerantz, director of the city’s Central Services Department.

Building Commissioner Louis Hasbrouck last week ordered the Academy’s loge and balcony sections closed until the fire escapes are made safe. The upper sections of the Academy can seat nearly 400 people. The city owns and is responsible for maintaining the theater, which opened its doors in 1891 and seats 800 people.

Hasbrouck said he was alerted to the public safety issues after two maintenance workers from the Parks and Recreation division noticed a failed section of stair on a fire escape on the east side of the building while working in Pulaski Park.

A city inspection found that a stair bracket had failed and a second inspection involving a structural engineer identified more structural flaws on all four fire escapes, according to the Building Department. City officials said they believe the fire escapes are original to the building, though they have been repaired many times over the years.

“They all have issues; they’re old,” Hasbrouck said. “We’ve got engineers, an architect and a welder involved.”

Among the most serious of the safety issues is a stair connector bracket that cracked and split off from the staircase on a fire escape bordering Pulaski Park.

The fire escapes, built of steel, cast iron and wrought iron, were last inspected by an outside firm that found no structural problems in a November 2011 report, according to Pomerantz. He said a welding contractor was scheduled to begin making emergency repairs today so that at least two of the fire escapes, one on each side of the building, are safe for use for the last Four Sundays in February performance.

Only one exit on each side of the building’s upper seating areas is required to meet the state’s building code, according to the Building Department.

Change in venue

Robert Cilman, executive director of the Northampton Arts Council, said he hopes the Academy of Music is available for the last event in the series on Feb. 24.

The show for this coming Sunday was almost sold out for the Academy of Music and would have required use of the theater’s upper seating areas. The arts council needed a space where it could fit everyone and that place ended up being John M. Greene Hall at Smith College.

Sunday’s program is called “PS22 Chorus and the Sci Tech Band meets Young@Heart.”

“This show has a big audience, and we needed to make this change,” he said.

Cilman noted that the performance in John M. Greene Hall will enable more people to come to the show. He said he’s grateful to Smith College for use of the college building, though the situation has created challenges, from preparing for the space to getting the word out about the change in venue.

Once the short-term repairs are made, city officials plan to take a long-term look at the fire escapes, which will likely be redesigned in light of the safety issues and ongoing deterioration of the structures.

Debra J’Anthony, executive director of the theater, said she doesn’t anticipate any future closing of the balcony or loge now that the city has identified the problems.

“The priority was to get two of them up and running to reopen the balcony,” D’Anthony said. “It seems like the city has made this a priority and they have given it their full attention and it’s being addressed for the safety of patrons.”

Mayor David J. Narkewicz, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Academy’s board of trustees, said the city will have to look at bringing the theater’s fire escapes up to snuff as a capital expense the city must fund.

“We’re going to have to take a longer-term view of the issues,” he said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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