Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
Soon you will be seeing lots of activity at 318 Centre Street in Fernandina Beach, site of the former O’Kane’s Irish Pub. All but one wall of the building, the west wall, will be torn down to make way for a new building to house a brew pub. But why did the original building need to go?
In April, John Cotner, project architect for the building owner, came before the city’s Historic District Council (HDC) seeking a Certificate of Appropriateness to remodel the existing building by eliminating the corrugated metal portion that had been added to the back of the original building and making the Centre Street facade more attractive. The HDC, which is charged to protect the architectural integrity of the city’s 55-block historic district, approved the proposed changes.
But once internal demolition of the old bar and restaurant got underway, the real condition of the building became apparent. Tony Perez-Guerra, the city’s Building Official, examined the roof support structure and expressed grave concerns about the stability of the building, should the roof be removed. Cotner said that at that point, he and building contractor Harvey Ward decided to take a step back and look at the big picture. They discovered that the building trusses had been compromised when a previous owner installed skylights. They also realized that the building’s east wall had developed a 4-6-inch “lean to the left.” Cotner characterized the situation as a “building with stage 5 cancer. The building was worn out, structurally unsound, with compromised trusses and deficient walls.”
Out of concern for both cost and public safety, Cotner decided to request a change in his original HDC approved plan in order to demolish all but the building’s west wall, which would be reinforced, while retaining the facade design the HDC had approved in April.
At the June 19, 2014 HDC meeting, the members considered Cotner’s proposal along with the city’s staff report. In writing her staff report to the city’s Historic District Council, Community Development Director Adrienne Burke said, “The request for demolition [of the existing structure] complies with the Code and Guidelines. The owner has pursued options for retention of the building, but a licensed engineer found that it is not economically feasible to upgrade the existing roof and walls to meet structural Code requirements and recommended demolition of all but the shared west wall.” Burke also reported that the building has been declared a non-contributing building in both the 1985 and 2007 architectural surveys of the Historic District, because the building retains few if any defining characteristics of the original and very little historic material. The essential form of the new structure will remain the same and will engage pedestrians in the same way as a storefront.
Burke included in her report a letter dated May 19, 2014 from project architect John Cotner stating that upon some preliminary interior demolition, his team had discovered serious problems that could affect public safety if more of the existing building were to be retained. According to Cotner, “In addition to the southern corrugated metal portion of the structure, it has become more evident that the east and west walls of the structure are in a precarious state and should be dismantled and reconstructed in a structurally sound manner.” He cited corroborating statements from both the Building Official and a licensed engineer.
During public input, Barbara Hill, owner of the neighboring building to the west, raised questions about effects of the demolition on her building and business, citing concerns about impacts on both upstairs tenants and courtyard activities. Cotner reassured her that the contractor will not be able to access her property without her permission. He stressed that the remaining west wall will be reinforced in multiple ways before demolition begins and work will not impact Hill’s building.
As a preservationist, Cotner still plans to salvage and repurpose what he can from the existing building. “We plan to utilize the salvaged brick from the east wall to reconstruct the facade corners, a 13’ return on east wall and entry portico element previously depicted in stone,” he wrote in his letter to staff. “The cast iron columns [found during interior demolition] will be preserved as previously planned and we intend to re-saw lumber of value from the existing roof trusses as finish wood. On the interior, the existing common brick wall (west wall) will be repaired and stabilized both temporarily during construction and permanently as the construction process progresses.”
The Historic District Council approved Cotner’s revised plan on a 4-0 vote. In response to questions, Cotner said that demolition will probably begin in 1-2 weeks with construction to begin in 30-60 days, depending on the permitting process.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.