By Jill Colvin
CITY HALL —When City Hall opened in 1812, it was heated by fireplace and cast iron stove. There was no electricity, telephone or sewer lines. The building was mostly constructed of bricks and wooden beams.
Despite several renovations, the building's structure stood relatively untouched. As it neared its 200th birthday, it began to show its age.
A ten-foot section of the ceiling in a second-floor committee room tumbled to the ground. Plaster has fallen in the City Council Chamber during hearings.
"We really thought we had to take care of it before it became more serious," said David Burney, commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction.
A 2009 renovation plan called for repairs to the roof and new safety systems, including a sprinkler system and improvements to the fire alarm. To increase electrical capacity, the city planned to excavate a new sub-cellar to house new equipment.
They also decided to fix the ceiling in the City Council Chamber.
The estimated cost of the project: $65 million.
As the work got underway, problems mounted. Workers installing sprinklers in the "bullpen," where the mayor and close staffers work, discovered "alarming" water damage to the roof tresses that required steel reinforcement.
The new discoveries and others sent costs soaring to a whopping $119 million — nearly twice the original budget.
"The work didn’t become more expensive. There became more work," said Andrew Brent, a spokesman for the mayor, before he joined reporters Thursday on a tour through tunnels, up scaffolding and along plywood ramps.
Throughout the building, crews are at work, painting, reinforcing and filling in cracks. On a makeshift floor erected under the Council Chamber roof, workers are re-plastering, re-gilding, and adding new plaster rosettes and stars in place of ones that were damaged.
The chamber's five large murals have also been peeled off the ceiling and shipped to Virginia, where they're being restored. (That part of the project is being paid for with private money, Brent noted.)
In the committee room, however, the damage was more severe. The ceiling had dropped several inches and was bulging because of it, officials revealed.
"If you don’t take care of a building, it ultimately will collapse," Burney said.
In addition to the repairs, crews have also unearthed numerous archaeological artifacts, including a bayonet that may have belonged to British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and British coins dating back to 1746. They also uncovered animal bones, some punctured with small holes that archaeologists believe were used for buttons.
Just this week, they discovered a new hidden decorative window dating back to 1805.
To showcase the discoveries, the city is planning to display photos with information about what was found in City Hall Park and will also display some of the most notable finds in cases in the building.
Fragments of an 18th century poor house that were discovered will be re-covered with gravel, though the new dirt is designed to be easily removable in case the city ever decides to put the find on display.
Once the renovation is finally finished in March 2012, the city hopes to be set for years to come.
"I hope this will be good for another 100 years. That's our goal," Burney said.