Burst pipe floods Blue Gene’s Pub at the O’Neill

Waterford — Blue Gene’s Pub at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center flooded two weeks ago, when a pipe burst after a cold snap, requiring a good deal of the pub’s walls to be stripped down to the studs before repairs start.

It's more than just a case of unfortunate weather-related damage, though. Blue Gene’s, after all, is a building with a significant amount of theater history to it.

For decades, Blue Gene’s has been the place for artists who have come through the O’Neill to meet and socialize — and sometimes perform. And it’s been a venue where shows being developed at the O’Neill can be rehearsed when other spots on campus are busy.

It saw rehearsals, for instance, of musicals including “Avenue Q” and “Superhero,” the latter of which just started its off-Broadway run.

It has served as an occasional classroom for students who attended the O’Neill’s National Theater Institute; John Krasinski and Jennifer Garner took playwriting classes there.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters have each deejayed at Blue Gene’s, and countless cabaret performers and puppeteers have performed there during their O’Neill conferences.

Now, about that burst-pipe incident: Eric Bemont, who is director of operations at the O’Neill and is leading the pub project, said it was Jan. 22, the day after the exceptionally frigid Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and about 1 p.m., one of his workers heard a fire alarm go off.

“He started making his way up there, and he could see water pouring out of the cracks of the doors,” Bemont said.

He opened the front and back doors, letting the water out, and called Bemont.

“It was quite a sight,” Bemont said.

It was a three-inch sprinkler pipe that they figure froze and, as the water thawed, burst.

Water dumped from the ceiling directly over the bar area. The deluge knocked off the bathroom door and blew down the bathroom ceiling.

“We have unbelievable water pressure down here,” Bemont says.

And before you ask: Yes, the heat was on.

“Our plumber was a little baffled on how it froze,” Bemont said of the pipe that is in a loft above the pub’s main space. “He thinks there might have been some air leakage outside the building, and the wind happened to be hitting this one section of pipe.”

Whatever the case, the results were dramatic. The walls were dripping, and the floor was covered in water. The electrical panels were soaked.

Because it was a sprinkler main, Bemont said, there weren’t a lot of easy ways to shut it off. The water company had to come down and shut off the water at the road.

Then came the cleanup. The O’Neill crew pumped the rest of the water out of the basement. They cleared the water that remained in the pub and brought in propane heaters to dry everything out. They started ripping out the sheetrock and wood that was wet, along with the insulation. The walls in the bathroom, closet and bar area are now down to the studs. They had been hoping to save the floor, but it was soon buckling and cupping.

“I’ve been here 15 years, I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” Bemont said. While they have had frozen pipes before, this was altogether different. “The volume of water was pretty astounding,” he said.

Bemont said it was fortunate that one of his workers was walking by Blue Gene’s when he was.

“It was building up pretty quickly ... It could have been a lot worse,” he said.

Other good news is that the programs signed by the artists who came through the O’Neill and then hung up in Blue Gene’s were all under plexiglass and saved.

The 20-by-40-foot building that is now Blue Gene’s Pub was donated to the O’Neill in 1986 and was moved from the Ironsides estate across Great Neck Road, where it was a children’s playhouse, to its current site.

The exact cost of the repairs still is being determined but insurance isn’t expected to cover all of it. The O’Neill has started a social media donation drive to help fund the work, and donations are being accepted through the O’Neill’s Campus Fund at www.theoneill.org. The current fundraising goal is $15,000. Bricks in the new patio behind Blue Gene’s also are available for purchase and will help support the work on the building.

The hope is to have the place ready for a grand reopening in late spring, in time for the O’Neill’s busy summer season.

k.dorsey@theday.com

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