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City Hall Buildings Fall Victim to Local Budgets

The upkeep and restoration of older city halls often become casualties of budgets squeezed by the Great Recession.

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr CC
It’s the largest municipal building in the U.S. -- some say the world -- and it took a whopping 30 years to build. Its citizens wanted the Philadelphia City Hall to be grand, to reflect the city’s pride as one of the nation’s most important manufacturing centers. Yet by the time the towering Victorian building was completed, its bright white exterior was already badly stained by pollution, and talk of demolishing it had begun.

That chatter only grew worse as Philadelphia, like nearly all Eastern cities, declined in population and economic prowess at the turn of the 20th century. The once flamboyant structure reflected Philadelphia’s loss of prominence: Neglect took its toll, and the building grew even dingier. Still, the citizens of Philadelphia decided against tearing it down, and instead approved its renovation in 1993. The tab for its restoration came to $80 million, but today the hall is back to its former glory. “Ornate, pompous, beloved,” is how Philadelphians now view it, according to Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Karen Heller.

This story might ring familiar for other municipalities with historic city halls. Remnants of the Great Recession continue to bear down on local governments, and often the upkeep and restoration of their older city halls become casualties of the budget. Properly maintained city halls should last a lifetime in terms of the original materials that went into them, says Barbara Pahl, vice president for Western Field Operations at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “But lack of proper maintenance is a huge problem.”

There are more than 330 city halls listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and hundreds more that aren’t listed but in danger. Once cities start cutting back on maintenance and repair, simple problems start to become bigger and harder to fix. “Our worry is that the more expensive repair and restoration becomes, [the more] public officials start to question whether they should do it all,” says Pahl.

Restoration of Philadelphia’s iconic City Hall began well before the recession hit, as did the $80 million retrofit and restoration of Pasadena’s Italian Renaissance-style City Hall and the $66 million exterior renovation of Milwaukee’s City Hall, which some have called the most beautiful municipal building in America. Since the recession, however, no other major city hall restoration projects have been announced.

Instead, some cities have resorted to repurposing their old city halls for private use. Boston’s former City Hall is now used as law offices. Stamford, Conn., has privatized its old Beaux-Arts building (in the National Register) and is renting out office space for entrepreneurs and business incubators. But experts like Pahl question the wisdom of selling off historic buildings only to have to pay for another structure to replace it. “That same money could often go into restoring and keeping the building for its best use, which is its original use.”

Historic City Halls in the U.S.

Source: National Register of Historic Places. Please note that some historic city halls may not be listed.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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