As drop ceilings get torn out of Eau Claire’s City Hall, the gutting of the historic building has revealed coffered vault ceilings, ornate plaster work and the remains of old skylights that haven’t been seen for decades.
Underfoot, the worn, thin grayish green carpeting has been torn away in spots to investigate the original maple wood floors that had also been covered since the late ’70s.
“We won’t know how much is in good condition until we get everything off the top,” Rod Bonesteel, the city’s engineering project manager, said Tuesday during a tour of the building.
Crews from Eau Claire construction company Market & Johnson began the demolition phase of the City Hall renovation project on Thursday, removing a bounty of ceiling tiles and other materials that had hidden much of the building’s historic character.
“Now we like to see some of the grandeur of the building,” Bonesteel said.
To do that means stripping away pieces of the last major renovation of City Hall, which was done in 1978-79 with energy efficiency in mind. New technology means the building can have both the original taller ceilings — 11 to 15 feet tall in some areas where there had been 8- to 9-feet drop ceilings — and keep its energy bills down.
“Now we’re able to provide energy efficiency in different ways,” Bonesteel said.
Mazes of ductwork, water pipes and electrical wiring will be reworked, which accounted for some of the biggest pieces of the $4 million in renovation work that’s scheduled to finish by Labor Day next year.
The project also is updating the building while paying respect to its history.
Temporary walls have been taken out, and some nonload-bearing ones are slated to go later in the project. Two smaller windowless meeting rooms on the top floor will be merged into one with glass walls, allowing visitors to see through to admire stained glass windows in an outside wall of the building.
The amount of work needed to bring out the historic character of the building varies room-to-room. Several years ago the city restored the North Conference Room — which long ago served as the council chamber — and that will only have a duct rerouted and some touch-up work. Just outside that room is an area with marble floors, wood-trimmed doorways and plaster columns, which will also get a light improvement.
Work elsewhere in the building will be more extensive.
Original plans for one room in the building show mosaic tile flooring, but those are long gone, and there’s now layers of plywood subflooring with carpet on top. New wood flooring is envisioned for at least part of this area.
Some architectural features will be reproduced from original drawings or pieces that are still intact.
A piece of blue decorative wood trim for a skylight that’s long gone will be used as a template to create a new, decorative frame for an artificial skylight that will be lit by LEDs.
Wooden mantles and trim on two recently uncovered fireplaces need some replacement pieces, though all five fireplaces in the building will be just for decorative purposes.
The renovation also will improve the layout for employees and those who visit the building.
“We’re relocating departments and working groups to make them more efficient for the public,” Bonesteel said.
Instead of using two side doors or an entrance off busy four-lane with no parking South Farwell Street, the city will turn an obsolete loading dock in the rear of the building — in the parking lot — into the new public entrance complete with a ramp.
“The primary entrance for the public will be orientated towards the back of the building from the parking lot,” city Manager Dale Peters said. “We will be placing the offices that more readily serve the public around that entrance.”
The first offices visitors will see then will be the customer service area where people pay their bills to the city. Engineering, planning and inspections — offices that also get a high amount of foot traffic — will be nearby. Employees who see fewer visitors will be located in the basement or on the top floor.
The city’s elections office will remain in its new home, in the basement of Fire Station No. 2, directly behind City Hall and also accessible from the same parking lot.
The 90 city employees who have been working from an office building at 2020 Prairie Lane since July will return after the renovation is complete.
As the city continues its push to make more documents electronic and available online, there is less space needed to keep paper copies, which has freed up some space in City Hall.
“We got rid of 70-some filing cabinets,” Bonesteel said, adding that they’re not coming back when the building reopens.
The space saved by their absence helps allow for improvements such as bathrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Much of the space that we gained through electronic storage will be used for better public accommodations,” Peters said.
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