Despite visible damage, Simeon's building can be saved after tragic truck accident

July 4, 2014 by Mark H. Anbinder

"This building can be saved." Less than two weeks after the tragic truck collision that took the life of bartender Amanda Bush and shattered Simeon's on the Commons, engineers have concluded that the damage to the iconic Griffin Block building in downtown Ithaca is not irreparable.

That's the word from the City of Ithaca's Mike Niechwiadowicz, director of code enforcement in the Department of Planning, Building and Economic Development. The longtime City employee says it's now a financial decision, one that will be made by the building's owners and insurance companies.

An engineer examines the Griffin Block building the weekend after the accident. 14850 Photo.An engineer examines the Griffin Block building the weekend after the accident. 14850 Photo.Engineers who examined the building following the crash were able to determine that most of its structural integrity is still sound. The exception was the south wall, which contained the Simeon's facade and bay windows facing Madeline's Restaurant and the Rothschild Building. That wall has already largely been removed, leaving upstairs rooms exposed to the elements, though the roof's slope to the north is helping keep rainwater heading away from the open section.

"The south wall was unstable" the night of the accident, Niechwiadowicz says. Crews working on the Commons construction project who happened to have a surveyor's transit on hand set it up on South Aurora Street and were able to quickly determine that the east wall, facing Aurora Street, wasn't moving at all, but that the south wall "was moving an inch or an inch and a half." That's because the wall was attached to the southeast corner, where the truck penetrated the building, as well as to the common wall shared with the next-door building that contains the Titus Gallery.

The south facade with most of its brickwork removed, showing a small portion of south wall remaining and a portion of the east wall that's not supported.The south facade with most of its brickwork removed, showing a small portion of south wall remaining and a portion of the east wall that's not supported.The night of the accident, crews from Paolangeli Contractor used a crane to remove a portion of the south wall that was most at risk of collapse, and most of the rest of the wall has been removed since. Crews have removed the bay windows that sat above the Simeon's entrance, and most of the remaining brickwork. A small portion of the east wall, facing Viva Taqueria, needs to be "cut back," because it's not being supported at the base of the building.

Niechwiadowicz says the rest of the building is structurally sound, though, as a result of the way the tractor trailer slammed into the building. "The truck pierced the building like an arrow," he says, "straight into the corner and hitting the wall behind the bar." He says "the vintage bottles being displayed on ornamental shelves didn't even move."

The un-reinforced brick slabs helped keep the damage contained, as well. "A newer building would have had steel bars running throughout the walls, and a truck hitting one part of the wall would have pulled on those bars causing much more extensive damage," Niechwiadowicz explained. 

He says as long as repair work is primarily structural, rebuilding the Griffin Block building as it was shouldn't require the owners to bring the building up to the standards required of new construction, including elevators and accessible restrooms. That should help keep a reconstruction affordable. He did point out that recent zoning code changes in the downtown business district meant that a brand new building built on that corner could be taller than the previous four-story maximum.

The building is owned by Hsueh-Yung and Hsueh-Lang Shen, the children of the late Shan-Fu Shen and Ming-Ming Shen, who had lived in Ithaca for several decades and owned the building. Shan-Fu Shen, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, died in 2007, and his widow, Ming-Ming Shen, a private music teacher who taught violin and piano in the area for many years, died in 2011.

As authorities did the weekend of the crash, Niechwiadowicz praised the many people who came together the tragic night of June 20th to help. He said the contractors working on the Commons came and spent hours surveying, moving equipment, and helping as needed, "without asking who was going to pay them or wondering whether they'd get overtime." Several volunteer fire departments in the area sent crews to stand by while Ithaca firefighters worked at the scene. The Cayuga Heights fire department manned a landing zone in case medevac helicopters needed to land, and Cortland's fire department brought the massive portable light stands that lit the scene long into the night.

Restaurant owners Dean Zervos and Rich Avery have said they hope to reopen Simeon's. The pair have owned the business since the fall of 2007, about twenty years after former Ithaca mayor Alan Cohen turned the corner tavern into a restaurant.

A benefit to help members of the Simeon's staff, building residents, and staff of the barbershop that's been in the basement for decades is scheduled for the evening of July 8th at Stewart Park.

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