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Staying closed: Fire chief won’t allow Crump Theatre to reopen

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The Columbus Fire Department will not allow the Crump Theatre to open because of safety considerations. Chet Strange | The Republic
The Columbus Fire Department will not allow the Crump Theatre to open because of safety considerations. Chet Strange | The Republic

The Columbus Fire Department will not allow the Crump Theatre to open because of safety considerations. Chet Strange | The Republic
The Columbus Fire Department will not allow the Crump Theatre to open because of safety considerations. Chet Strange | The Republic

The Columbus Fire Department will not allow the Crump Theatre to open because of safety hazards.

The Columbus Capital Foundation, owner of the 125-year-old theater, had planned to reopen it this month. Instead, the foundation may sell the building or leave it closed indefinitely, foundation secretary Tracy Souza said Monday.

Lafayette-based architectural firm Jones & Phillips detailed multiple safety hazards throughout the theater in study results released March 24. The consultants gave options to renovate the theater or perhaps tear it down and start over.

The Crump lacks a fire sprinkler system and functioning fire escapes and has a stage floor that does not meet current structural codes, according to the consultants.

The theater’s mechanical room has water damage making it unsafe for people or equipment, according to the study.

Despite an Indiana law that allows the theater to continue to operate under 1941 building codes, Columbus Fire Chief Dave Allmon said the problems are now too extensive and must be fixed before the Crump could reopen.

“As it stands right now, I would be totally against (reopening) it. They’re going to have to put a lot of money into the building,” he said. “That report pretty much says what I’ve been thinking all along.

“If somebody calls us and says they want to do (something), I’ll say ‘No, sorry. You’ve got too much stacked up against you now,’” he said.

Mayor’s response

Interviewed afterward, Mayor Kristen Brown said she planned to meet with Allmon to discuss his decision.

Even after the consultants released their findings March 24, foundation president Hutch Schumaker had said everything was still favorable for a planned April opening.

Code violations

If the Crump Theatre needed any major renovations that would require a building permit, it would automatically fail to comply with the following code requirements under the International Building Code:

It has no over-stage smoke venting or fire curtain system.

It lacks a sprinkler system, functioning fire escapes on the building’s west side and the required number of exits.

The stage floor does not meet current structural code.

It does not meet current seismic code.

The existing Crump fly house above the stage is not capable of supporting current touring shows.

Its mechanical room is unsafe for people and equipment.

It does not meet the Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Law.

Source: Lafayette-based architecture firm Jones & Phillips

According to Schumaker, the study findings were misinterpreted by the consultants, who referred to many Crump improvements over the years as renovations.

“Repairing stuff and doing stuff that require a building permit are two different things,” Schumaker said. “If they did go ahead with reconstruction, that’s when all of this kicks in. He made the assumption that this would actually happen.”

Short on cash

No decisions will be made on the Crump anytime soon, Souza said. She added that there is only about $2,000 left in the Crump’s bank account.

After the feasibility study revealed an option for an arts performance center at the downtown Sears site, momentum shifted from the Crump to new ideas, she said.

“The consensus was to keep it going as long as we can until we get through the Crump study and everything is clearer,” she said. “I left with the impression that there was a shift, thinking about the theater being at the Sears property. That would take the pressure off of the Crump’s future of being a theater.”

When volunteer Rovene Quigley retired from managing the Crump as of Dec. 31, the foundation lost its event programmer, another factor that complicated reopening the theater, Schumaker said.

The foundation has received calls from groups interested in using the Crump, but the foundation — or its members — aren’t in the event-booking business, he said.

Meeting 1941 codes

The Crump had its last renovation requiring a building permit in 1941. The theater’s facade and interior were changed to an “art deco” look, according to the consultants. At that time, renovations converted it to a movie theater rather than a live-performance venue.

Since then, Indiana law has allowed the Crump to follow the same standards as in 1941 code enforcement, Columbus Fire Department inspector Keith Owen said.

“Until they do renovations, they do not have to bring it up,” he said.

If the Crump requested a building permit for repairs, the theater would have to be brought up to 2014 code, according to the state fire marshal’s office.

Lowell Weber, chairman of the Code Committee at the Indiana Association of Building Officials, said the law that allows the Crump to operate under 1941 codes was created to protect those who own and operate historic buildings.

“The logic behind that is that you don’t have to continually update buildings to meet current code,” he said. “That’s just the way it is, (but) hopefully a person would think about remodeling their building.”

Owen also said that in terms of the fire safety code, at 1941 standards, the Crump has been in compliance every time he was called out to do an inspection.

With an audience size usually below 300, Owen said sprinkler systems and fire alarms were not required in the 1941 code. However, the city did require a fire watch — much like bodyguards protecting the theater and patrons against fire — for many events.

Entertainment permits

A state fire marshal with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security has also been in the Crump every time an entertainment permit — required in order to hold events — was needed.

Spokesman John Ericson said the most recent annual permit was issued to the Crump on April 8, 2013.

The inspector would reference the code used when the building was built or renovated when issuing the permit, Ericson said. In the Crump’s case, that’s 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

“We work with the local building inspectors on that. It takes a physical visit to the location,” he said. “They’re going to look at exiting, fire containment, sprinkler systems.”

Consultant’s evaluation

Architect Van Phillips, of Jones & Phillips, compared the Crump to a giant fireplace, much like the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago that caught fire in 1903 and claimed the lives of 602 people, of which 212 were children.

A fire broke out on stage and smoke filled the theater while hundreds of people fought each other while racing toward nearby exits. Most of the deaths were from asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation.

The Crump’s stage is just like that at the Iroquois, with no ventilation and no fire curtain, Phillips said.

Robert Solomon, the National Fire Protection Agency division manager for building and life safety codes, said there is a provision in Title 675 in the Indiana Administrative Code which states an existing building used for public assembly building can be used as long as the local jurisdiction takes reasonable steps to prevent fire, explosion or panic to break out.

“That’s giving you the out from complying with the code,” he said.

In the Crump’s case, the Columbus Fire Department decided to require one or two firefighters at events of a certain size as a safety measure, rather than requiring the Columbus Capital Foundation to make necessary upgrades to add a sprinkler system, fire exits and fire escapes and new wiring.

Those firefighters would be on hand to direct evacuation efforts if needed, Allmon said.

“If something happens, you get people out of there quicker,” the chief said. “But therein lies the false sense of security. If you can’t get people out, what good is direct contact?

“If you’ve noticed, there have been very few things going on there (at the Crump) because of that issue.”

No annual inspections

Fire inspectors have been to the theater only when an event has been booked, part of a verbal arrangement reached after a John Mellencamp concert at the Crump in 2008, Owen said.

The city doesn’t require annual fire inspections and a date to inspect the Crump is not on the fire department’s inspection calendar. The last inspection was done for a paranormal-investigation event that took place in December, Owen said.

However, the Columbus Capital Foundation would have to renew its entertainment permit when it expires April 8 if it wishes to reopen the facility, Owen said.

Renovations or improvements?

Improvements have been made since the Crump’s last major renovation in 1941, but none of them required a building permit, according to the fire department.

Newer heating and cooling systems were installed, different seating arrangements with different required exits were put in and some electrical work was done, none of which had to meet modern code standards, Schumaker said.

Any requirements the Crump had to meet have been met, Schumaker said, adding he is not worried about the hazards the theater might or might not have more than anyone else who owns an old building would be.

“A whole lot of buildings could catch on fire,” he said. “The key is, there are adequate fire escapes and emergency exits that meet code.”

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