Upgrades next month in the Judson Erne Auditorium at Columbus North High School will bring 1,000 all-new seats, overhead lights and other improvements.

The 32-year-old auditorium, which sustained damage in a Dec. 5 fire, will have all of its seats removed starting July 10 in preparation for other work to be done inside the facility, said Steve Forster, director of operations for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

That will allow crews to replace overhead lights starting July 17 and seven heating and air conditioning handlers in the auditorium the following week, Forster said.

The district approved an $829,000 contract with Dunlap and Co. in May for the replacement of heating, ventilation and air conditioning handlers. The money will be paid through interest refunded through Build America bonds, which were made available by the federal government and allowed the district to reinvest in its facilities, said Jim Roberts, BCSC superintendent.

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The fire started when an overhead light blew and ignited plastic on the fixture. It resulted in extensive smoke and soot damage, including the loss of about 35 seats which had caught fire in the auditorium, firefighters said.

About 2,000 costume pieces and 2,000 props that were damaged had to be thrown away.

The district hired a professional cleaning service to restore the auditorium that resulted in all of the seats being removed so smoke damage could be cleared from the decking and supported ceiling. The $1.6 million cost was covered through the district’s insurance carrier.

Despite initial optimism, matching replacement seats could not be found.

Five entire rows of seats were removed because the seats were constructed together. For safety reasons, partial rows could not be put back into place, school representatives said.

That’s why BCSC plans to replace all of the North auditorium seats with new ones. The new seats are scheduled to be installed starting Aug. 22 and will continue until the second week of September — well after the school years begins Aug. 2, Forster said.

Seat replacement will cost $145,000, with funding provided through a combination of money from the district’s insurance provider and interest refunded through Build America bonds, Superintendent Jim Roberts said.

The upcoming work will result in changes to the overall configuration of the auditorium, including the ramps to the stage that will be made accessible to patrons under the Americans with Disabilities Act, said John Johnson, auditorium manager and North’s drama coach.

In addition, the center aisle will be filled with seats to accommodate more room on the end of both rows, he said.

During the transition, meetings that typically take place in the auditorium during the school year will also be moved elsewhere due to the renovation work.

For example, a first-day meeting for North freshmen will be moved to the school’s gymnasium, while an open house for parents will be relocated to the cafeteria, Johnson said.

More than six months after the fire, Johnson said he can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m anxious for it to be done,” he said.

About the project

A tentative timeline has been set for renovation of the Judson Erne Auditorium at Columbus North High School, which will begin July 10 and continue in phases.

July 10: Removal of seats in the auditorium

July 17: Replace overhead lights

July 24: Begin replacing seven heating and air conditioning handlers

Aug. 22: Installation of new seats with work expected to continue through the second week of September

Source: Steve Forster, director of operations for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com