Repairs to give Durham’s City Hall facelift

jwise@newsobserver.comJuly 30, 2013 

Conceptual rendering of City Hall after its $6.35-million fixup and facelift. RND Architects propose replacing the original composite panels with smaller metal panels in an 'ashlar' pattern, and vertical fins above an awning to emphasize the building's front door. RND Architects is the project designer.

CITY OF DURHAM. — City of Durham

City Hall’s staircase to nowhere is going away, and newcomers to the seat of Durham’s government won’t have to hunt so hard to find the way inside.

Those are two improvements in a $6.35-million facelift and fixup starting this fall on the 35-year-old City Hall.

“I think this is going to really dress it up; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the new appearance,” General Services Director Joel Reitzer told the City Council last week.

Looks, though, are not the city’s motivation in this reconstruction, the third at City Hall in less than a decade. Most of the job is repair.

“We have seen … a large amount of the exterior of the building itself showing incidence of deterioration: panels cracked and bowed from failed ceilings and water intrusion at the joints and openings,” Reitzer said.

Inspection found brick walls so separated from the building’s steel frame that stopgap repairs were necessary “so it wouldn’t fall over before actually starting construction this fall,” Reitzer said.

Inspection also found deteriorated waterproofing membranes and places where waterproofing was nonexistent, he said. Insulation was also wet and “non-functioning.”

Two 150-ton chillers in the air-conditioning system are worn out and need replacing, and the plaza connecting City Hall with its 1960s “annex” – originally, police headquarters – leaks water into the parking garage below and needs updating for Americans with Disabilities compliance.

And then there are the ways to get in.

The stairway rising from the corner of Chapel Hill and Mangum streets to a prominent mezzanine doorway marked “City Hall” appears to be an authoritative public entrance. However, it has a “No Entrance” sign that directs visitors to another way in, on City Hall Plaza.

To the eye, City Hall Plaza appears more like an alley, and the public entrance a back door tucked unobtrusively into the shadow of a recess at the end of a colonnade.

As Reitzer described plans, the “monumental stairway to nowhere” will be taken down and much of the space it takes up will be left open, with landscaping. Public access will be emphasized with a distinctive facade and marquee-like awning with the words “City Hall.”

Durham’s City Hall, Reitzer said, “doesn’t look like any type of City Hall that anyone can reference” as a major public building. “So we do need to try to have identification on the building.”

Reitzer said the job should be finished by the end of 2014.

“This was challenge,” said City Councilman Eugene Brown. “Let’s face it folks, this is probably one of the ugliest buildings in all of downtown Durham. I would be hard-pressed in any other city to find an uglier City Hall.”

City Hall had a major interior renovation in 2008, and City Hall Plaza got a $995,000 renovation three years later to deal with drainage problems the earlier work had missed. Reitzer, who came to work in Durham in 2009, said that drainage into the building’s basement, where Planning Department offices have repeatedly flooded, is going to remain a problem even after the upcoming repairs.

“We still have challenges,” he said. A lot of the building’s problems stem from “untested technology” used in its design and construction in the 1970s – such as plywood backing for faux-masonry exterior paneling.

Two other buildings in the Durham area used the same technology, Reitzer said, “and both are failing right now.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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