CITY HALL REBORN: Renovation wrapping up on historic downtown complex

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

A nearly two-year, $6.4 million renovation of Eau Claire City Hall is nearing completion, and the downtown landmark is almost ready for the return of city workers and visitors.

What has already returned is much of the historic complex’s classic grandeur. Gone are drop ceilings, worn carpeting, and workspaces without natural light. Soaring plaster and pressed tin ceilings have been restored, carpet has been removed to reveal beautiful maple floors, and architectural elements such as fireplaces, columns, and woodwork have been uncovered or restored.

Members of the public will have a chance to take guided tours of the restored City Hall on Thursday, July 25, between 3 and 7pm. A ribbon-cutting is planned for 5pm, and food trucks will be on site to serve visitors.

“The previous remodel was worn,” explained Dave Solberg, the city engineer, referring to construction work done on City Hall in the 1970s. The original City Hall was built in 1916, and in the ’70s an addition was built to connect it to the former public library next door, which at the time became more city offices. 

In keeping with the styles of that era, and a desire for energy efficiency, the 1970s remodel lowered ceilings and covered classical architectural elements, including skylights. Soffits added to conceal ductwork and other utilities also hid decorative molding. Overall, the interior of City Hall became more cramped and bland.

On a recent walk-though of the building, however, restored century-old elements stood out, including marble floors, tiled fireplaces, Corinthian columns, and wooden banisters.

“It’s humbling to be touch 100-year-old wood,” Solberg said as he led a small tour group up a staircase to the top floor of what used to be the library. 

Throughout the building, glass walls and doors had been added to conference rooms to allow sunlight to reach farther into the building. Skylights – now back-lit with LED bulbs – were restored to brighten conference rooms. And a muted, white color palette was used throughout the building to draw out architectural features.

The $5.3 million interior remodeling – which was undertaken by numerous local contractors, including Market & Johnson, B&B Electric, and Esser Glass – began last summer. At that time, city employees relocated from City Hall, 203 S. Farwell St., to temporary rented offices at 2020 Prairie Lane. Now that the project is in its final stages, city workers will begin moving back in August, and the building is expected to be operational after Labor Day.

The renovation wasn’t all about aesthetics, however. Windows were replaced and roof leaks were repaired. (For a while before the project, the city’s human resources director had to work with a bucket on her desk because of a leak.) Space was reallocated within the building to better fit with the city’s current workforce. For example, the digital era has made massive filing cabinets and drafting tables obsolete. New paint, carpet, and a child-friendly area were added to the back of the City Council chamber on the ground floor. And a new public entrance – also handicapped accessible – was added on the back of the building. Meanwhile, the entrance on the north side of the complex will be closed to the public.

 The overall renovation project also included $1.1 million in exterior work, which began in late 2017. Tuckpointing – repairing mortar between masonry blocks – helped spruce up the exterior, as did the replacement of the (now decorative) front steps of both halves of the complex. New exterior lighting will also help the buildings’ beauty shine in the night.

Solberg is optimistic that the project will come in on time and under budget. He’s also optimistic that city employees will like their new and improved workplace. “Everybody’s eager to reoccupy the buildings,” he said.

A PLACE IN HISTORY

Eau Claire City Hall was built in 1916 for just $72,000 (that’s about $1.7 million in current dollars). It was designed by George Awsumb, a Chicago architect who had spent part of his youth in Eau Claire. According to a brief history of the building by the Wisconsin Historical Society, Awsumb “used the already existing Neo-Classical library as a guide. The city hall and library are architecturally related, employ the same construction material, and together use the raised site to its best advantage.” The exterior was made of Bedford limestone and marble from Carthage, Missouri. 

Awsumb apparently based his design for the building on the Petit Trianon, an 18th-century chateau on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles in France. (It’s not a complete copy: Awsumb added features such as huge Corinthian columns and a large staircase.) The original Petit Trianon was built for Madame de Pompadour (the mistress of King Louis XV) and was later used by the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette.

The former Eau Claire Public Library opened in 1903, and was made possible by a $40,000 donation from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (It was among the first of the 63 libraries that Carnegie endowed in the state.) Like City Hall, the library was built of Bedford limestone in a Neo-Classical style. It was designed by Chicago architects Patton and Miller. The building served as Eau Claire’s library until 1976, when the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library opened a block north on Farwell Street. In 1978-79, the former library was remodeled into city offices, and a glass-fronted addition was built to connect the building to the original City Hall. The addition includes offices and the current ground-floor council chamber.