Cost to fix-up Columbia council chambers rises $400,000

Council votes to restore ornate, long-hidden skylight

08/08/2012 12:00 AM

08/08/2012 12:34 AM

Renovation costs at Columbia City Hall have jumped by $400,000 so that a long-hidden, ornate skylight in the city’s second oldest government building can be restored and visitors to council chambers can see it.

Council on Tuesday unanimously approved raising the budget for improvements on the third floor, where formal council meetings are held, to $650,000 so that the original, historic design can be displayed.

With the already-approved $250,000 to upgrade the elevator, the total price tag for renovations is now $900,000.

“It’s the people’s building and it’s an investment in the city’s history,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said. “The people of this city should take pride. These are not general fund dollars, these are funds set aside for purposes of historic preservation.”

About $300,000 of the $400,000 increase comes from the city’s allotment of revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages, said David Knoche, the city’s director of general services, which includes its buildings. So-called “liquor rebate” funds must be spent for historic preservation purposes, he and Benjamin said. The other $100,000 is federal money the city received for administering stimulus grants a couple years ago, Knoche said.

The additional work will delay council’s return to its renovated chambers until next May instead of January as originally projected, Knoche said.

Council adopted the budget increase without a public discussion and no one spoke against it.

But Columbia businessman Joe Taylor, formerly the state’s secretary of Commerce, said he questions the spending.

“In difficult economic times like this when we have a need for additional police cruisers, K-9 units, so many public safety items and the roads in Columbia are in such bad shape, for us to spend $400,000 more on council chambers, swimming pools and park fences, one has to wonder if our priorities are in the right place,” Taylor said. He is referring to the $1.7 million council voted to spend on a new pool for Maxcy Gregg Park and the aluminum fence that borders the park near the USC campus.

During the renovation, council has been holding its meetings at the Eau Claire print building and in a conference room at the city’s garage on Washington Street across from police headquarters. Council will stay there five months longer because of the enlarged City Hall project.

Kirk Dillon, the owner of the Irmo company doing the renovations in council chambers, said he has worked in the historic renovation field nearly 20 years, including on high-profile Charleston buildings. Dillon said he has never encountered the architectural features of the ceiling and skylight.

Rising about 34 feet from the floor of the chamber, the metal skylight has walls that once were made of plaster like the rest of the room. At the base of the skylight, the original architects installed ornamental iron designs with eight triangular glass panels. The ceiling rises to meet the skylight in a curved fashion called a coffered ceiling that features large, bold, plaster beams.

Built as a federal courthouse and completed in 1872, City Hall is widely believed to be second in age only to the state capitol.

“This is the first time in all my years that I’ve seen (such a plaster ceiling),” Dillon said in the chamber after Tuesday’s vote. “The fact that they’ve used iron is very unique.”

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