Its stonework deteriorating, Baltimore's historic City Hall to undergo $17 million restoration

From a distance, Baltimore’s imposing, domed City Hall stands as a reminder of the city’s longevity and historical prominence.

But up close, city officials say, the once-gleaming marble is dingy and cracked. The stones lining the base of the cupola — a copy of the one atop the U.S. Capitol — must be patched and the mortar repointed. Chunks of the rocks have fallen away. Layers are peeling off some slabs.

The Pugh administration is embarking on a $17 million project to clean and shore up the nearly 150-year-old building’s exterior over the next decade after an engineering study revealed the stonework was deteriorating rapidly and needed immediate restoration. Work is expected to begin as early as the spring and will be carried out in a dozen stages, erecting scaffolding on portions of the building at 100 N. Holliday St.

Baltimore historian Matthew Crenson said City Hall, in its elaborate Second Empire style that is sometimes compared to a tiered wedding cake, represents much more than any another building in Baltimore’s skyline. Therefore, washing away the grime and fortifying the stones is a matter of morale, he said.

“City Hall is a symbol of civic pride,” said Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University. “It is expression of the city’s spirit at its best, at its most aspirational.”

Inside the six-story building are the City Council chambers, the mayor and comptroller’s offices and various agencies, including the finance department and inspector general’s office.

Its last major renovation was about 40 years ago, when the city spent $10 million to repair the stonework, double the amount of office space by adding mezzanine levels, restore the six Corinthian columns on the front side and bring the ceremonial rooms back to their original style.

Besides being an iconic landmark, the building must be able to effectively function as offices for hundreds of workers each day, said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, who oversees the city’s historic properties for the Department of General Services. Baltimore’s seat of government is one of the country’s oldest working city halls. It is expected to remain open throughout the exterior work.

Gilman-Forlini said the facade work is necessary about once every generation to stabilize the structure and patch the marble after decades of rain, frost and air pollution. Officials will look for salvaged pieces of marble to match the original, which came from a now-flooded Cockeysville quarry. The same quarry provided stones for the George Washington monuments in both Baltimore and Washington. If pieces can’t be matched, Gilman-Forlini said mortar will be mixed to match its color and texture.

The masonry work cannot be done during cold months, contributing to the project’s lengthy timeline, Gilman-Forlini said. The size of the building is also a factor in the time the project will take.

“The exterior stone is almost 81,000 square feet of surface area,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of the work is ordinary maintenance, but what makes it difficult, timely and expensive is the scope. It is a full city block.”

Gilman-Forlini said lightning struck the building about two years ago, sending chunks of marble crashing through the atrium’s glass ceiling, and prompting engineers to closely investigate the building’s exterior. They found layers peeling off the stone (a process called delamination), cracks and missing pieces. No one was hurt in the lightning strike.

The city’s spending board has authorized an initial $4 million toward the project, coming primarily from voter-approved bonds designated for the upkeep of public buildings. The city will be seeking bids for the repairs and officials hope to select a contractor in coming months. Work could begin in the spring, when temperatures return above freezing.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said spending $17 million over a decade is a sound investment for the city, especially because it is likely to prevent more costly interior damage. Mold in the basement has driven some city offices into rented space downtown in the last couple of years, costing money each month that Clarke said the city could have avoided with preventative maintenance.

But given the deluge the city’s seen in recent months and the leaks inside City Hall, Clarke said the exterior stonework might not be the most pressing project.

“They should start with the roof,” she said.

Gilman-Forlini said officials are evaluating what other maintenance projects must be completed, including repairs to the trapezoidal slate roof and the cast-iron dome.

Recent maintenance projects include $1.2 million in roof work and water damage repairs in 2006. Smaller ticket-items have been addressed piecemeal: new carpeting, fixing skylights, gutter repairs.

The building opened on Oct. 25, 1875, relocating city headquarters from what is now the nearby Peale Museum, a 200-year-old building that is also undergoing renovation. The mayor and City Council set out to build a new home after one council president lamented in 1853 that the Peale was “a miserable shanty, a standing source of mortification for every citizen.”

When the new City Hall was built in a classic style common in France from 1850 to 1870, the marble was the building’s costliest item. Of the $2.2 million spent at the time, the marble cost $957,626.

Crenson said the city was working to recover from the Civil War, and the new City Hall gave residents a cause to rally around.

“This is a project to occupy the city’s collective mind when it was feeling down and threatened, much as it is now,” Crenson said. “It is a reminder that we’ve been around for a long time, expect to be around for a long time and, although we’ve hit some pretty rocky territory lately, we’ll survive, just like City Hall.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan and research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

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