CITY HALL — After months of hammering and rooms packed with scaffolding, the $124 million renovation of City Hall's east wing is finally nearing its end.
City Council staffers began moving into their new offices this week after more than a year in purgatory, crammed into the Municipal Building across Centre Street.
The project was originally planned to upgrade safety systems in the 200-year-old building, with new sprinklers and fire alarms, a new underground electrical room and new elevator. But as work got underway, crews discovered the building was rotting from within, sending construction costs soaring from an estimated $65 million when the project began to a whopping $123.8 million today.
"As you open up the walls, you find conditions that need to be rectified," said David Resnick, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, who led a behind-the-scenes tour of the progress this week. Though some areas are finished, work is now set to be completed in July 2012, many months behind schedule.
Crews discovered the plaster fixtures, which weighed between 12 and 30 pounds, “were basically just glued up there,” prompting them to quickly fill the rotunda with scaffolding and begin emergency reinforcement using anchors and screws.
“As soon as that happened, we immediately took steps to close it off,” said Resnick.
“There’s no way, knowing the conditions, that we could leave something up there that could potentially be dangerous,” he said. “That’s one of the challenges, as far as managing the cost.”
In fact, every wall that was opened up during the building's first major renovation seemed to reveal more conditions in need of repair.
Workers installing new sprinklers in the "bullpen” area, where the mayor and his closest staffers work, discovered "alarming" water damage to the roof tresses, with much of the original wood rotted or cracked.
In order to replace the damage, crews needed to open the building's roof to access the timbers from above.
The committee room ceiling had also dropped several inches because of rotting, causing it to bulge. At one point before repairs, a ten-foot section of the ceiling had tumbled to the ground.
But the work also unearthed a number of unexpected archaeological finds including a bayonet that may have belonged to British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and British coins dating back to 1746.
They also discovered fragments of an 18th century poor house and animal bones that may have been used as buttons.
And they found many unexpected architectural features hidden behind newer construction, including old brickwork and even a fireplace that have now been incorporated into the new design.
With the renovations, the historic building has taken a big step into the 21st century.
In addition to a new electrical system, the building’s lawn will become home to a giant new fuel cell in January — the first of its kind in the city.
The fuel cell, which will be disguised with green paint and hidden with shrubs, is expected to provide all of the building's power at night and on weekends and about half of the power during the day, DDC staffer Louise Levi said.
Crews are now scrambling to finish up work by Dec. 8 when the City Council is scheduled to hold its first meeting in its new, renovated digs.
"They're frantically trying to get it ready," Resnick said.