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History unearthed in Ophelia’s C-Street rehab

Ophelia’s owner says he feels like Indiana Jones after discovering a secret underground room

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Remodeling jobs often come with surprises that cause frustrating delays and unexpected expenses. More than six months into the renovation of a historic Springfield building, Tom Muetzel is taking surprises in stride.

Muetzel has been remodeling the 150-year old building at 300 E. Commercial St. since November 2016 to relaunch his Ophelia’s restaurant and bar that closed on Walnut Street in 2015. Already months behind his original targeted opening date, his contractors found a secret underground room that is adding a lot more money to the project and pushing the operation of his business into 2018.

“This is one of those things where you find it, you restore it and you take a lot of care doing that,” he said.

Best laid plans
The original plans for the brick building included three second-story lofts, Muetzel said, plus a ground-floor restaurant with a grand staircase in the center of the room descending into a basement bar lined with original foundation walls in irregular, hand-cut limestone.

The building owners, Joe and Craig Hosmer of Northbridge 300 LLC, are footing the bill for the gutting and refurbishing project.

In June, co-general contractors Rob Foster of Arch Contracting LLC and Noel Day of NSD LLC began to increase the basement height to 9 feet by removing up to 3 feet of concrete and soil from the floor.

The building’s main floor was completely removed to make way for excavating equipment in the basement, Foster said. This could have destabilized the building, but a temporary main floor was put in place, about 4 feet higher than the original.

During the digging process, Muetzel said items from the commercial building’s long history – such as bottles, shoes and bowls – were discovered, along with the top of a stone archway.

“At first there was all this initial excitement because we had found this architectural piece that no one knew was there,” he said. “And you’re on this kind of Indiana Jones dig all of the sudden.”

After carefully uncovering the structure, Muetzel said an entry to an underground room was revealed. The barrel-vaulted room, constructed with rustic interlocking stones, was nearly full of water and debris. Whatever had once been in the room was destroyed.

It took seven weeks to remove a portion of the debris and pump most of the spring water out, Muetzel said, finally giving a full look at the the space.

“This was a sea of muck and boards,” he said, pointing to rotten wood while guiding Springfield Business Journal on an exclusive tour. “Those were either shelves or something that over time, sitting here in water, it all just collapsed.”

At 40 feet long and 16 feet wide, the curved ceiling reaches 8-feet high, and there is an archway at each end. The room still has a foot of lumpy mud on the floor and water continues to keep a sump pump busy – removing about a quart of water a minute.

“It leaches through the walls in a pretty regular manor,” Muetzel said, with mosquitoes thick in the dusty air.

Building archaeology
Foster said it was quickly determined they’d incorporate the space into the restaurant and bar – even though it would add time and money to the project.

Crews are digging slowly and cautiously, in an attempt to discover artifacts. Dirt is carried out of the basement one scoop at a time.

Theories are surfacing about the building’s history.

Muetzel said Becky Frakes, who works in Joe Hosmer’s law office, informed the team her great-grandparents ran Wilcox Sewing Machine Repair Shop in the building.

“We have actually found in this debris Singer sewing oil bottles,” he said.

Most of the items appear to be from tenant Dr. E.T. Robberson, Muetzel said, for whom the side street is named after.

“He had a medical practice here and a pharmacy,” he said, displaying the 1800s glass prescription bottles.

“The first week and a half it was just crate after crate of these bottles,” he said. “So many of them are in perfect shape.”

Muetzel is cleaning each item carefully and plans to make them viewable in the bar.

The limestone walls appear to be from Phenix Marble Co., Foster said, based on the trademark fossils. Phenix Marble was founded in 1884 near Willard but closed during the Great Depression, according to SBJ archives. It was reopened by Conco Co. in 2016.

Foster theorizes the room, which remains about 62 degrees Fahrenheit, was used for cold storage or even as a mortuary for Robberson, but as the city developed and the water table changed, the water leaks became a problem and the room was abandoned.

Unearthed opportunity
The crew is working with J&M Engineering LLC on a plan to safely finish the basement and turn the cellar into usable space – including constructing a winding staircase down to the north end of the underground room and designing a continuous water removal system. Project costs were undisclosed, and building owner Joe Hosmer could not be reached by deadline.

Digging around the south end of the cellar revealed a square shaft jutting out from the archway entrance, Foster said.

The shaft could be the workstation for a bartender, Muetzel said.

In any case, the underground space could be used for events and private dining.

“This room’s going to be very popular,” he said.

The timeline is undetermined.

This will be the fifth bar and restaurant Muetzel has opened with his wife Lori and the third currently operating. The couple also co-own Finnegan’s Wake and Sequiota Bike Shop.

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