Published Tuesday, June 11, 2013

PORTLAND — A structural engineer has yet to determine what caused the brick facade of a building at 142 High street to fail, leading to the closure of one of the city’s busiest arterials.

Meanwhile, Tammy Munson, director of the city’s inspections division, said she has instructed the building’s owner to evaluate the condition of the building’s entire facade once the current crisis is stabilized.

City officials hope to completely reopen High Street to traffic on Tuesday after workers finish erecting scaffolding on the building. However, they worry that rain might hamper their work. The city on Monday evening allowed one lane to open for traffic.

The city closed the street on Sunday morning after a tenant noticed that “bits of mortar” were sprinkling on the sidewalk, said Kerryann McQuade, rental manager for the owner, Stonecoast Properties LLC.

When police and firefighters arrived at the scene, a portion of the facade between the fifth and sixth floor could be seen bulging out from the building.

Workers on Sunday and Monday removed the loose bricks and debris from the bulging facade, McQuade said.

She said the 85-year-old building is supported by steel beams and remains structurally sound. She said an engineer, Alfred Hodson II of Portland, has been hired to oversee the repair work. He has not determined what caused the facade to give way, she said.

The owner has also hired P&G Masonry Restoration of Old Orchard Beach. The focus now is to secure the facade as quickly as possible, McQuade said. “It couldn’t be happening any faster than it is,” she said.

Nobody has been injured. After crews began working, a brick or a piece of concrete fell, ricocheted off a parking sign and crashed through a window of an artist’s studio on the ground floor, McQuade said. She said the artists had been notified ahead of time and had removed all of his paintings.

McQuade said a tenant noticed falling mortar at 8:30 a.m. Sun-day and paged Terry Glidden, who oversees all work on the building. By 10 a.m, High Street was shut down to all traffic and pedestrians.

“Thank God nobody was hurt,” McQuade said.

The city last inspected the building in 2012 when the Fire Department approved a new fire alarm system.

The city inspects the facades of newly constructed buildings, but it doesn’t inspect an old building unless it receives a complaint or if the owner obtains a work permit, Munson said.

Masons repointed the building’s brick facade two or three years ago, tenants said.

Munson said she didn’t know what caused the facade to fail. She said building materials used in 1928, when the building was constructed, were inferior to materials used today, and that there are several buildings in Portland that have netting on the facades to protect the public from falling bricks.

She said there could be many factors that caused the facade of the High Street building to fail, including vibrations from the rehabilitation project across the street at the former Eastland Plaza Hotel.

The 100,000-square-foot building at 142 High St. was purchased in 2003 for $5.2 million. It has more than 200 commercial tenants, many of them artists and graphic designers. The building fronts Congress Street and houses the State Theatre.

Only one office has been closed due to facade problems, McQuade said Liza Kelley, a graphic designer with an office on the fifth floor, said she was reassured once she learned the bricks don’t support the building. “It’s good news that we don’t think the building will collapse,” she said. Munson said she is pleased by the response of the building’s owner, which is responsible for the building’s repair, and the work of the police and fire departments. “This has been a well-coordinated effort on everybody’s part,” she said.