A renovated Judson Erne Auditorium at Columbus North High School, nearly a year in the making, has reopened.

New seats, overhead lights and handicap-accessible ramps are visible improvements. Out of view, seven heating and air conditioning handlers were replaced in the 32-year-old auditorium.

Nearly $1 million has been invested in the auditorium, which was significantly damaged last year in a Dec. 5 fire, including the loss of about 35 seats.

That cost doesn’t count $1.6 million covered by insurance to clean and restore the auditorium, requiring all 1,067 seats to be removed so smoke and soot damage could be cleared from the decking and supported ceiling.

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The final phase of the project, completed in October, included installing 1,021 new seats.

The finishing touches could not be finished soon enough for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s Sept. 16 season-opening concert, which was moved to the 892-seat Clarence Robbins Auditorium at Columbus East High School. The orchestra also had to move two of its concerts from the 2016-17 season to Robbins while Erne Auditorium was being cleaned and renovated.

However, the work at Erne Auditorium was completed in time for last weekend’s two Columbus Indiana Philharmonic performances of “Celebrating the Reformation.” And the Philharmonic will be back with its “Stand & Shout!” concert Nov. 11.

”It’s phenomenal”

David Bowden, Philharmonic music director, said he was impressed with the auditorium improvements.

“The positives are that the seats are larger and there’s a feeling of spaciousness,” Bowden said.

Bowden also said he felt the overall acoustics in the auditorium were better.

“For a high school auditorium, it’s phenomenal,” he said. “Some of my favorite moments in my career are in that space.”

Next month, Columbus North drama students get their chance to return to the auditorium stage with their Dec. 1-3 production, “As You Like It,” by William Shakespeare.

Drama students had to utilize alternative locations during 10 weeks of rehearsal for their spring production, “Kiss Me Kate,” before getting back into the auditorium for the March play.

Also, the North High School choral concert planned for Oct. 4 had to be moved to the high school cafeteria.

Both the cafeteria and the gymnasium were used to host back-to-school activities normally conducted in the auditorium, school officials said.

“Teaching adaptability is a good thing,” said John Johnson, auditorium manager and North’s drama coach.

But enough is enough.

Many happy returns

“I’m excited to have this space up and running again,” Johnson said.

Drama students also say they are glad to return to a familiar environment.

“It was definitely a sense of relief to be back,” senior Maria Amalia Sanchez said.

The 1,021 new seats, 46 fewer because of a new configuration, cost about $145,000.

What had been the center aisle was filled with seats to accommodate more room on the end of both rows, allowing ramps to the stage to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Johnson said.

The new Stussy-brand seats are an upgrade for the audience, as they are far more comfortable than the old ones, the auditorium manager said.

The old seats were slated to be replaced even if the fire hadn’t occurred, but the incident pushed up the timetable.

More working space on the stage and a new house lighting system are other improvements that North senior Steven Walters said he appreciates.

Also, most of the auditorium lights were replaced with LED lighting.

“There’s a general feel of excitement,” Walters said.

Still, the auditorium makeover is not fully complete.

Nearly 2,100 costumes and more than 2,100 props were damaged and discarded, resulting in them having to be replaced.

“We’ll continue that process as we find the stuff we don’t have,” Johnson said.

Facts, figures about auditorium project

Auditorium seats:

Previous seating capacity: 1,067

New seating capacity: 1,021

Cost: $145,000, paid by district’s insurance provider and interest refunded through Build America bonds

Restoration/cleanup:

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. hired Servpro, which specializes in water and fire damage cleanup and restoration, at a cost of $1.6 million covered by the district’s insurance.

Other improvements:

  • Replacement of seven heating and air conditioning handlers at a cost of $829,000, paid by interest refunded by Build America bonds
  • Two ramps made accessible to patrons under the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • New overhead lights installed

Pull Quote

“For a high school auditorium, it’s phenomenal. Some of my favorite moments in my career are in that space.”

— David Bowden, Philharmonic music director, on reopened Judson Erne Auditorium at Columbus North

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