2006-09-28 / Front Page

Mackinac Loses Historic Building

Building Experts Say Collapse of Silver Mine Was Imminent
By Karen Gould

Bunker Construction began pre-demolition work on a collapsing Mackinac Island downtown building Wednesday, September 20. Demolition work was handled by Belonga Excavating of St. Ignace and began the following day. Bunker Construction began pre-demolition work on a collapsing Mackinac Island downtown building Wednesday, September 20. Demolition work was handled by Belonga Excavating of St. Ignace and began the following day. A 120-year-old downtown Mackinac Island building was demolished last week after building experts said it was about to collapse. The surprise tear-down process began about 6 p.m. Wednesday, September 20. Tenants living in adjoining buildings were evacuated and businesses on each side closed while it was leveled the following day.

Structural faults were discovered when, in preparation for remodeling the store into a coffee house, building owner Victor Callewaert removed first-floor wall coverings to allow his architect to determine requirements for the project. As the drywall and boards were removed, it became apparent they were all that was supporting the building's second story.

"I was flabbergasted," Mr. Callewaert said. "When we saw what was going on, we stopped right there."

There was no prior evidence of the problem, he said. When he saw that the wall studs were all but gone, he immediately called Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud and his architect, who was to prepare the remodeling plans.

People flock to Main Street to watch the former Silver Mine building being torn down by an excavator, operated by Belonga Plumbing, Monday, September 18. The building was condemned Sunday, September 17, by the city, which ordered it be torn down within 15 days. The building was demolished within a few hours. Vic Callewaert, the property's owner, is planning to rebuild. People flock to Main Street to watch the former Silver Mine building being torn down by an excavator, operated by Belonga Plumbing, Monday, September 18. The building was condemned Sunday, September 17, by the city, which ordered it be torn down within 15 days. The building was demolished within a few hours. Vic Callewaert, the property's owner, is planning to rebuild. The Main Street building, which once housed The Silver Mine gift shop, was considered a contributing structure to the Island's National Landmark status. It was built sometime around 1895 or as early as 1870, estimates Steve Brisson, chief curator at Mackinac State Historic Parks.

The building was approximately 20 feet wide and was built on the north side of Main Street between May's Candy Shop and Patrick Sinclair's Irish Pub. Inspectors noted the west side of the building, which is next to May's Candy Shop, showed the most structural damage.

To control the demolition of the building, Bunker Construction of St. Ignace was called in to shore up the inside walls before Belonga Excavating of St. Ignace could begin the demolition work.

This late 1800s photograph looks east on Main Street, which was called Water Street at the time, and shows the Silver Mine building (second from left). (Photograph courtesy of Mackinac State Historic Parks) This late 1800s photograph looks east on Main Street, which was called Water Street at the time, and shows the Silver Mine building (second from left). (Photograph courtesy of Mackinac State Historic Parks) "The building was in such bad condition, we couldn't start to tear it down until they shored it up," said Larry Belonga. The pre-demolition work was necessary before the building could be taken down, to prevent the walls from falling down all at one time.

"The walls were just hanging on the second floor," he said.

The structure was built with cedar posts, common construction for buildings in the late 1800s, and in some locations, Mr. Belonga said, the studs were rotted up to four feet off the ground and there was no foundation under the old building.

"It was a dangerous building to try to rebuild," he said. "It would be dangerous for a construction crew to work in there because it was so bad."

"It's amazing how it stood up," said Mr. Callewaert, who has owned the Main Street structure for approximately four years. The store was leased to owners of The Silver Mine for many years. The Silver Mine moved across the street this spring and, until a week ago, a kite store occupied the building, before it was closed to for the remodeling.

The Silver Mine building was torn down Monday, September 18, between May's Fudge (left) and Patrick Sinclair's Irish Pub downtown (see photograph in Looking Back column). Onlookers pictured are (from left) Belonga Plumbing's Larry Belonga (in the hard hat), building owner Vic Callewaert, City Building Inspector Dennis Dombroski, and Island Fire Chief Dennis Bradley. The Silver Mine building was torn down Monday, September 18, between May's Fudge (left) and Patrick Sinclair's Irish Pub downtown (see photograph in Looking Back column). Onlookers pictured are (from left) Belonga Plumbing's Larry Belonga (in the hard hat), building owner Vic Callewaert, City Building Inspector Dennis Dombroski, and Island Fire Chief Dennis Bradley. "It's on its way down," said city building inspector Dennis Dombroski at a special city council meeting Wednesday, September 20. "All we're trying to do right now is control how it comes down and how fast it comes down."

The special meeting had been called to consider a street cleaning contract, but the building issue dominated discussion.

Mr. Dombroski, who resides near Cheboygan, told Council he was called over to the Island Sunday and inspected the building with Fire Chief Dennis Bradley, who immediately ordered the power shut off.

"Major settling has occurred," said Mr. Dombroski. "Beams are crushed and it needed to be shored up because of the way it was failing. It was going to take out one of the neighboring buildings."

"I don't think there was a single continuous stud on the west side of the building," said Mr. Dombroski. "The beams underneath are heavily rotted. The center posts on the front section of the building are actually crushing through the beams."

Mr. Dombroski said there could be any number of causes for the structural problems, including a roof design that allows water to run down the sides of the building.

He advised Council the building should be taken down to mitigate a potential danger to neighboring buildings.

"When that thing goes, it's going to twist, it's going to rake, and it's going to end up inside one of the other buildings," said Mr. Dombroski.

With the walls braced, Council debated if the demolition project could be placed on hold until after weekend visitors had left the Island. Construction officials noted forecasters were predicting heavy rain for the weekend, which could create even more instability in the building.

"If we hear a loud crash during the meeting, I'd say it (the bracing) didn't work," said Fire Chief Bradley. "It's that's bad."

Alderman Dan Wightman, who works for Edison Sault Electric Company, agreed.

"I've been told by several different people that it's structurally unsound and if something happens, and we waited, for whatever reason, we're really putting ourselves in a spot," said Mr. Wightman. "That thing's got to come down and it's got to come down now."

Council said it preferred to have the building demolished at night, but Mr. Belonga said his crew needed daylight to see what they were doing.

"We can't start after dark," he said. "It's too dangerous now."

He estimated 15 to 20 dumpsters would be needed to remove debris from the building.

Mr. Dombroski recommended neighboring businesses close during the first part of the demolition because of the unstable nature of the building, as the potential remained that the building could shift.

"I don't think it will damage or destroy either of the neighboring buildings, but it could punch a hole in the wall or something like that," he said. "That's a concern."

The council meeting also was attended by construction crews, business owners, Police Chief Bill Lenaghan, and Bill Chambers of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, who was to deliver dumpsters to the site and would re-route his carriage traffic during the building's removal.

"Let's go forward and get it done," Mayor Doud said.

Council approved the demolition work and two temporary motor vehicle permits for the excavator and dumpsters.

At the end of Wednesday's meeting, pre-demolition work began with Bunker Construction crew removing the building's facade. The Belonga crew began the tear-down process Thursday at 3 p.m. May's Candy Store closed at that time and Patrick Sinclair's Irish Pub closed for the evening at 4 p.m.

Mr. Callewaert said his insurance covered fire, but not this situation, and he could not estimate the cost to demolish the building and construct a new one.

"It will be huge," he surmised, and more than what he was prepared for, he said.

The construction season on Mackinac Island begins in late October when the tourist season ends and Mr. Callewaert said he hopes to be able to begin work this fall on the new building, which will house a coffee shop.

"I hope to open as soon as I possibly can," he said.

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