Asheville – Mixing metaphors the optics were tonedeaf. It was the pandemic. Unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, and crime were all up. Riots had cornered city leadership into sharpening their focus on equity to the point reparations were promised for the oppressed, and the City of Asheville was going to invest another million dollars in refurbishments for City Hall.
City staffers, of course, saw this as much more than another instance of elitists building palaces off the backs of taxpayers. City Hall was constructed almost 100 years ago. It still had the original 1926 boilers and elevator equipment, and it was worse for the wear. City Hall is, after all, not the abode of members of city council. It houses the offices of civil servants and provides a physical locus for citizens to interface with their government. And many who use the building for productive purposes might get annoyed at elevator outages.
This building, which could be considered the people’s house, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The quaint Art Deco landmark, described as a birthday cake with terra cotta and pink Georgia marble icing, was designed by Douglas Ellington, the creative genius behind many of the city’s architectural treasures, including Asheville High School and the First Baptist Church downtown. Inside, offices were perhaps unremarkable, except for the large windows with spectacular views. The council chambers, with vaulted ceilings trimmed in faded aqua and broken chandeliers, and the manager’s office, with its large fireplace, reflected the Neo-Georgian period, which had barely passed at the time of construction.
Fiscal responsibility dictates taxpayer investments should not be neglected, and implicit in historical places designation is the intention to conserve them. And this gets pricey.
Then there were the mechanicals. Not only were they antiquated and expensive to operate, they were out of compliance with modern health and safety codes as well as the city’s goal to have all municipal buildings powered by renewables by 2031. In years preceding the latest commitment to upgrade City Hall, the building’s heating system was modernized for $810,245. Unfortunately, the HVAC system was upgraded to use natural gas, which will require either another modernization or some serious carbon offsets if the city is to meet its green goal.
A more recent mechanical upgrade was the retrofitting of the 1926 manual elevators with modern technology. The city postponed doing this for years, even though at least one elevator would be routinely out and notes with instructions for the creative workaround for paging would be taped to the walls. The reason was, people loved the human touch of a warm, conversant greeter escorting them to their floor.
Several square feet of electrical controls were reduced to three wall-mounted control boxes, and the generators, one for each elevator, have been considerably miniaturized. Then, a special room was built to enclose the machinery, for compliance with existing codes. Call buttons now respond to voice, and video monitors have been installed in the elevators, also for code compliance. The city spent $2,355,129 automating the elevators.
Aesthetically, the metallic crown molding, which was not anything to catch the eye, was reconstructed and now plainly displays gilded city hall motifs and stylized flowers. Asheville’s Capital Projects Director Jade Dundas explained, “The finishes were actually recreated based upon what we were able to investigate through research and also through some testing of the materials, what it would have looked like back in 1926.”
Dundas didn’t talk much about improvements made to the basement, acknowledging that most unfinished basements are devoid of standout features. This basement, however, was found to have water damage that “caused structural concerns” that were “shored up” for $286,879. Addressing these unexpected problems, obviously, pushed other items on the capital improvement list over-time and over-budget.
Also in need of abatement were the lead and asbestos on the seventh floor, which has been abandoned for years. Twice, Dundas said he wanted to dispel myths about any utilization of this area, and both times his comments were met with chuckles from the dais, insinuating that members of the audience were not privy to the private joke. Councilwoman Roney only mentioned that she had heard rumors that the upper floors of City Hall were being used as a hotel.
Dundas said before demolition and cleanup, which cost $187,900, the seventh floor looked like all the other floors of city hall. Soft costs for the renovation, like design and environmental assessment, cost $211,688. The eighth floor, which is in similar condition, will undergo a similar gutting. Dundas said additional funds will be needed for this, but as long as the city continues to experience staffing issues, the work can be postponed.
Lastly, the building’s cupola was badly damaged. Cracks and bubbles in the paint, cracks in the plaster, and leaks in the elevator shaft betrayed water seepage. The area was deemed unsafe for investigators, so the city resorted to contracting with an engineering firm to deploy a photography drone. The root of the problem was that the exterior terra cotta tiles had cracked and the grout had popped out of the joints. The repairs, which were deemed “necessary” and required considerable effort to emulate authenticity, cost $941,622.