City hall renovation cost balloons

MERIDIAN — The renovation of Meridian’s City Hall has been plagued with unforeseen problems, with costs more than doubling original estimates and years added to the construction timeline.

But, when the building finally reopens, City Clerk Ed Skipper said, Meridian will be home to “a national treasure.”

City Hall was originally constructed around 1915 in the Beaux-Arts style of architecture. For decades, it stood relatively unchanged, but in the 1950s and 1960s, the already rather old building was equipped with modern conveniences that undermined much of the original architecture.

Drop ceilings obscured ornate plaster moulding to make room for air conditioning ducts, wood paneling was put up to divide large chambers into small offices, mahogany windows were replaced with aluminum ones, fancy finishes were painted over, and the once grand building became rather ordinary.

The city decided to renovate the building around 2005 because it had not been maintained well enough and was in need of many structural repairs — even more, it turned out, than they realized.

Skipper said there was not a specific cost estimate at the beginning of renovations, but the city certainly wasn’t expecting the work to cost as much as it has. Back then, they expected to pay for the City Hall renovation, a new fire station, and several smaller projects with one $10 million bond. Today, the total cost is estimated at $17 million.

Originally, Skipper said, the city figured they could cover the cost of the entire project with approximately $7 million to $8 million, leaving $2 million or $3 million for the other projects.

There are three main factors, he said, that have driven up the cost and caused the delays.

For one, no one realized the extent to which the building was damaged. Once workers got into the building, they found iron supports that had rusted to less than half their original size, a damaged drainage system, and an untold number of other costly problems.

Second, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Skipper said the city was unaware of the extent of historical accuracy that historical status would require under the jurisdiction of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

For example, reproductions of terra cotta tiles on the building’s exterior had to be painstakingly exact replicas of the originals, and anything salvageable from the original building, even things as small as screws, had to be repaired and reused rather than replaced.

The third cost incurring factor — Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina in 2005, Skipper said, contracting costs skyrocketed because so much more contract work was being done, and that included the cost of renovating City Hall.

When work on the building first began in 2006, it was expected to take only two years to complete. Now, the building is scheduled to open in early 2011.

The renovation is in the last of four phases. Planning, selective demolition and, especially the third phase, exterior renovation, took longer than expected.

Part of what made Phase Three take so long was the replacement of terra cotta tiles on the outside of the building. Archives and History mandated that tiles that could not be salvaged be replaced with exact replicas, and only two companies in the world could make those replicas, Skipper said.

After a long wait for the tiles to be made, it took a long time to place them on the walls because they were not standard in size — each specific tile had a specific place on the wall.

“Everything about it has had a lot of labor involved,” he said.

Phase Four, the interior renovation, is currently on schedule for completion by February of next year — but you wouldn’t know it from looking inside the building.

Right now, it’s full of plywood, duct tape, exposed pipes, and severely damaged floors, columns, ceilings, and walls.

As unfinished as it looks, Skipper said a lot has been done. Two sets of new fire stairs have been installed, an elevator shaft has been moved and a staircase put in its place, and lots of duct work, electrical work, plumbing, and other mechanical work is under way.

Workers are completing some of that mechanical work, constructing a mechanical building across the street that will house the HVAC system, pulling up flooring to prep for inlay, and beginning prep work for the finishes inside the building.

The finishes — including marble and wood flooring, elaborate plaster moulding, and columns made of a rare type of imitation marble called scaglia — are an important aspect of the renovation, from the historic preservation standpoint.

The rooms will be in the same places they were in 1915. Over decades of use, many new walls were erected and structures moved to make room for extra offices inside the building. Once the renovation is complete, the layout of the building will match that of the original architectural drawings as much as it possible while still conforming to modern building codes.

The third floor will house an auditorium used for city council meetings and rented out for events, in addition to a few offices.

The second floor will be home to the city’s administrative offices, including the mayor’s office, as well as the finance and records department.

The ground floor will house the city’s data processing department.

Once complete, the renovations will transform City Hall in a kind of living museum, a rare type of relic because, as Skipper said, “It will be a museum quality building, but still being used for its original purpose.”

While the walls, floors, columns, windows, and moulding will all be made to replicate the building’s 1915 counterpart, many of the renovations going on now were unheard of 95 years ago.

A building that heats and cools itself to provide maximum comfort would have seemed like a sublime fantasy in 1915, and things like “telecommunications conduit” and “compact fluorescent bulbs” would have just sounded like pure nonsense.

The renovated building will have everything it needs to run a modern workplace, and, Skipper said, will be “energy efficient wherever possible.”

Before, he said, the building “was very inefficient. So there’s a real effort to try to make it as efficient as possible.”

When it reopens, Skipper said the building will have the best of both worlds — the building integrity and beauty of early 20th century buildings, with the comfort, accessibility, and convenience of the 21st century world.

“They don’t build buildings today the way this building was built,” he said. “Now it’s being restored both structurally as well as historically.”

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