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City Hall renovation to preserve past CENTRAL * Union Mills * Westminster * Sandymount * Finksburg


The face-lift planned for Westminster City Hall will open th building to the disabled, turn the heavily used back door into a more formal entrance and restore 19th-century parlor ambience to the City Council chamber.

The council approved a renovation plan Monday night for the 151-year-old mansion that Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein called "the most treasured building in our city."

Approval cleared the way for architects to draft specifications for bids on the work.

Council members praised architect Martha Jones for planning modernization of the building while preserving its historic appearance -- and for coming in under budget.

Mayor W. Benjamin Brown did question a $10,000 budget item to buy fabric-covered chairs at $250 each for public seating in the council chamber.

Mr. Brown said Tuesday that he had "no particular problems with the chairs, but it sort of takes my breath away when we're looking at $250 for a chair."

Ms. Jones said cheaper folding metal chairs seemed inconsistent with a room that is being renovated with period carpet and draperies. She said $250 is "by no means an expensive chair."

Ms. Orenstein also said she did not think the chair prices were out of line.

"We're wearing old dresses" by renovating City Hall, said Ms. Orenstein. "We didn't spend all that money on that addition. Why can't we have a brooch on the old dresses?"

Westminster residents have made it clear that they care about preserving the brick mansion built by Col. John K. Longwell in 1842 on a rise overlooking Main Street.

Colonel Longwell named it Emerald Hill, and it was a private residence until 1939, when the city bought it and transformed it into City Hall.

The council planned in 1991 to ease its office space crunch by putting an addition on the building, but dropped the plan after citizens objected to changing the building's appearance.

"I think, on the historic side, everyone would have to agree that the proposal [architects Daniels Jones & Associates] made is more in keeping with Emerald Hill than what we have today," said Councilman Kenneth A. Yowan.

The council budgeted $225,000 for the City Hall project. The architects estimate the cost at $186,000.

The work plan includes:

* An exterior elevator on the west side of the building to provide second-floor access for the disabled. The top of the elevator shaft will be disguised to resemble a chimney.

* Widening the back door and entrance hall off City Hall Drive and adding a small porch. The changes would provide access for wheelchairs and create the appearance of an entrance foyer that leads into the mansion.

* Removing partitions between the two rooms that are believed to have been Colonel Longwell's front and back parlors, where the council now meets. The council table will be placed against the interior long wall, facing rows of seats for the public. Special -- wiring will allow hearing-impaired individuals to hear discussion from any part of the room by wearing a receiver.

"It's going to allow citizens to have a clear view of the council and more comfortable chairs, so maybe they will be more likely to come [to meetings]," said Councilman Damian L. Halstad.

* Restrooms accessible to the disabled.

Big-ticket items in the renovations are the elevator, at $51,000, and heating, ventilating and air-conditioning improvements, $25,000.

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