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St. Louis’ Church Collapse is the End of an Era! Opinion piece

The last Sunday in Harborfest; July 25th, 2010, was in many ways an unfathomable end to a tradition that has been with this city for 23 years. Yet this Sunday was not just the end of a festival, it was the end of a history for St. Louis’ Church. A 130 year span of time that most people who live in the City of Oswego have never really had the chance to learn. The demise of St. Louis’ was a quick one. It thankfully harmed no one as well, yet, the indelible mark that the building made on this City and it’s people will not be one that is easily forgotten.

After the collapse when I started looking at the headlines in the papers and on the news I started getting more and more frustrated. For it seemed to me quite the impossibility that a church which stood vacant for almost ten years had shown no previous signs of a structural problem. Then came reports from the papers, quotations from people who were in the building just days before the collapse that said there were no apparent signs of an imminent danger. Yet all of this seemed highly improbable, seeing as I served at Reverend Cumming’s funeral services as an altar boy over twelve years ago when even at that time, there were apparent signs of water damage in the church even if the were only small ones.

The same people who are quoted saying that there were no signs of the building collapse were also quoted saying that the building was in danger three years ago. Murray Gould was quoted in The Post-Standard on January 18th, 2007 written by Patrick D. Stella “The internal gutter system is leaking and clogged and the water damage can be seen from the inside and the outside of the building. The floors are buckling and damage from mold is getting worse. This is a classic case of what people in the restoration field would call “demolition by neglect.” Mr. Gould was also quoted in The Palladium-Times on July 27th, 2010 in an article by Janet Dexter “…water had come through, and the plaster in the ceiling was falling down. One column in the wall from the floor all the way up the wall was completely rotten.”

Mary Vanouse, the City of Oswego director of community development in the same Post-Standard article said “When I last inspected the property with another group interested in purchasing it, I witnessed a considerable amount of water damage that looked as if it was coming from the roof areas both to the north and south, these roofs were added in additions at some point in the 19th century. Water damage was apparent at all levels, including the basement.” When I picked up Tuesday’s Palladium-Times, it was as though I was reading the same article about the same building only three years later. It was really interesting is when the City of Oswego Code Enforcement Director Neal Smith is quoted saying “I went through there four or five years ago with a potential buyer… I think that the rain event of the last few days did not do the building any good.” He also explained in the article that St. Louis’ was a truss-style building and then yammered on about walls and splaying and roof collapse in a very amazing tap dance motion.

After you finish reading this I want you to go to the computer and visit this web site http://www.truss-frame.com/truss-fail.html. All of which took myself a person who has a limited knowledge of how buildings work about five minutes to find. This site along with many others says that the number one cause of truss roof failure is water damage. While of course there are other causes, this is the main issue here. The roof would have failed because the walls could not support the weight of the load as it was designed to do under the truss-style of building Mr. Smith reffered to.
Let us take a step back to the article from The Palladium-Times, let’s go back to what Mr. Smith said. His office received no complaints or notices from neighbors about issues with the building, and while the office did not have any indication of the impending danger…” WAIT A MINUTE
No notice of impending danger?

The New York State 2007 Property Maintenance Code, Chapter 2, Section 202, defines;
Imminent Danger- A condition which could cause serious or life-threatening injury or death at anytime.

I self-admittedly am not an expert granted, but water damage to both the north and south walls of St. Louis’ church from three years ago sounds kind of like a bad situation in a building which is designed for those walls to support the weight of the roof. Yet wait New York State did the thinking again because I found another code that pertains to this situation.

New York State Property Maintenance Code, Chapter 3, Section 305.2 defines;
Structural Members – All structural members shall be maintained structurally sound and be capable of supporting the imposed loads.

How are walls that are water damaged after at least three years but I’m leaning towards 10-12 years in a 130 year old building able to be considered structurally sound when it was that severely water damaged? How was it not the code enforcement departments duty to work to get a viable solution to keep the public safe?

Then to top it all off the city turns around and points finger at the diocese who are the property owners. As the owners of the building it is their responsibility to be sure that the building falls within City and State Building Codes. So yes let’s point the finger at the church for a minute. The church knew all about the problems from the beginning and here is where it all starts to come together. Danielle Cummings diocesan spokeswoman was also aware of the issue in 2007 and was quoted “Father Wurz has done his best to maintain the building. I know he hasn’t been able to keep up with things, such as heating he can only do what he can do.” Then in 2010 “Certainly there was damage inside that we were all aware of that had been reported, different water damage et cetera. But we were never given any indication after people had done their inspections that there was any type of structural risk.” Yet to who was the damages reported the dioceses or the city? Is the dioceses really not at fault for putting countless lives in jeopardy?

Well all of these people, all of these hands, none of which knew what the other was doing, the building is gone. Forever confined to nothing but history and memories, yet we are not confined to be fearful of these buildings that are in imminent danger. We have the right to be vocal and speak up. Tell Neal Smith that this is unacceptable because while he works for the City he is still empowered with State laws, and if he is unwilling to act maybe he should step down. The diocese should be fined everyday that they were knowingly not in compliance with the laws that are clearly established. So that the city may place the blame where it belongs. They are paying to clean up the building they owned and did nothing with. They are not paying for breaking the law. The inspectors who didn’t see any potentially dangerous scenarios should hang up their pads and pens, or maybe give an interview regarding the matter, and discuss the reasons why the building wasn’t in danger. I know a reporter who would love to talk with you if you are reading this.

I want to stop with the finger pointing and the arm throws in the air and want to thank God that there was no one injured or worse. We are all very lucky of that fact, I worry though what if it had happened at another time when the streets were crowded? Thankfully it didn’t but it could have. What would we be doing then?

We as a community need to decide how best to go from here. Are we to sit around and allow the finger pointing to go on and throw up our own hands? Will we do what is needed to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Only time will tell, and for us I hope we decide to hold our hands up and say this is not going to happen again, if it did we may not be so lucky.

Marc Scheirer
Resident of the 2nd Ward