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City hall molding crash raises safety questions


Annapolis officials are assessing the safety of the city council chambers after a 50-foot-long piece of decorative plaster molding broke from the wall and crashed to the floor.

"It fell because it was poorly constructed," said Orlando Ridout V, an architectural historian with the Maryland Historical Trust, a state preservation agency. "Once it starts to fail, there's nothing to stop it."

Two independent examinations concluded that the wooden mountings supporting the plaster molding had dried up and shrunk over the years. This put more weight on the nails holding together the wooden mountings than they could support, causing the structure to slide off the nails and crash to the floor Sunday.

"It seems to me that if that's the case on that side of the wall, that we need to take all the molding down and start over again," Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said. "We can't put everyone in harm's way."

The molding, which rings the chamber where the walls meet the ceiling, could be reconstructed and stabilized, Ridout said, but he and Moyer doubt that's the best option. The council could decide instead to replace the current molding with a lighter wooden molding that had been used in the building and is now in storage.

The assessment gives the city the opportunity to identify repairs that may need to be done to the entire historic building, City Administrator Bob Agee said.

"Instead of just doing the minimum amount of fix now, take a look at it and say, 'What else needs to be done?' and do it all at once," he said.

The cost of repairs had not yet been determined.

While the debris is being cleared, most public meetings scheduled for the chamber have been moved to the First Presbyterian Church across the street. Tonight's Board of Appeals hearing has been moved to the Taylor Avenue Fire Station, and Agee said Monday's city council meeting might be moved as well.

"It's really the only space in City Hall where you can get more than six people together," Special Projects Coordinator Karen Engelke said. "It doesn't call a halt to city business, but it did leave all of us scrambling for alternate meeting spaces."

Ridout and City Services Director Emory Harrison discussed the damage yesterday, standing in the middle of a room half covered with dust and debris from the crash. Wires stuck out from the wall in several places, including the spot where a television camera had been knocked to the floor. What had once been a long stretch of ornately carved blue plaster was now a pile of blue and white rubble along the wall, covering several broken spectator chairs where the public would sit during meetings, as well as the seats of four aldermen and the press table.

"Thank God there weren't any people there," Agee said.

Agee was in his office directly beneath the city council chamber shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday when he began to hear noises that sounded like someone walking around upstairs. Having thought he was the only person in the building, he went to investigate.

As he walked toward the chamber, he heard sounds that he realized later were small pieces of plaster falling. Then came a loud boom.

"I thought the building had been hit by lightning," he said. "There was this huge crash."

That possibility was soon ruled out when Agee walked past a window and saw no storm outside. When he arrived at the scene, he said, he was "very surprised," to see the large plaster beam disintegrated on the floor. He called Harrison and Moyer, who soon joined him.

"It certainly looked worse than I had visualized," Moyer said.

Engelke said that Saturday, when she was in the chamber helping to install two new portraits on the same wall, she noticed that there were about a dozen cracks in the molding that fell the next day, and that the whole piece was dangerously tilted. She said she reported it to Agee, but that "there wasn't anything we could do at that point."

The council chambers were built in 1867, when City Hall was constructed to replace the previous city government building, which had been heavily damaged by the Union troops that had commandeered it during the Civil War. The chamber has since been renovated three times -- once in the early 1900s, once in 1935 and again in 1982.

Moyer said it is unclear whether the molding that is being considered as a replacement dates to the 18th century or as recently as 1935.

"Is this the time when we take the opportunity to return some of the historic features of the room? I don't know," Moyer said. "I think this gives us an opportunity."alia.malik@baltsun.com

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