Rising above the neighborhood like an over decorated wedding cake, the Beaux Arts—style City Hall of University City, Mo., is this 38,000-person bedroom community's most prominent landmark. Infused with the history of boom times in the American Midwest, the octagonal tower due west of downtown St. Louis embodies the rising—and falling—fortunes that are central to the narrative of free enterprise in the United States.
Built in 1904 as the headquarters of an ambitious publisher, and taken over as the seat of local government in 1930, the brick-and-limestone edifice has served its constituents well. But after a century of heavy use and deferred maintenance, it was starting to deteriorate badly, says city director of community development Lehman Walker. "It was important to have a building that our citizens are proud to come to—an image that reflects the importance of this building to city government."
In early 2004, citizens enthusiastically approved a $2.9 million bond issue to finance the building's renovation. Architect Trivers Associates, of St. Louis, was hired to oversee the job, with the strict proviso that the building be brought into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and restored to a level that would earn LEED certification. The city council, in particular, wanted to produce a green showpiece to set an example for its constituents. On a bigger stage, the project represents an area of architectural practice—sustainable renovations of historic buildings—that is of growing importance to a world that's eager to reduce its carbon footprint.
University City's city council wants the renovated city hall building to be a green showpiece, setting an example and serving as an educational tool for local residents.
Credit: Michael Robinson
Originally known as the Woman's Magazine Building, the tower was built by Edward Gardner Lewis as the headquarters for his Lewis Publishing Co., which produced Woman's Magazine and Woman's Farm Journal.
Architect Herbert C. Chivers designed the tower, which springs from a limestone base and features buff-colored brick walls alternating with large, stacked windows framed by terra cotta ornament. Inside, an impressive marble staircase connects first- and second-floor offices surrounding a central rotunda. To attract attention, Lewis had a large searchlight installed on an elevator that rises out of the domed roof, sweeping it across the fairgrounds of the 1904 World's Fair in nearby Forest Park. It was great promotion, and tours were offered of the building and the adjacent printing plant.
In 1910, more than 1,000 suffragettes converged in University City for the first national convention of the American Woman's League. The general sessions were packed into a large domed room on the top floor of the building. Lewis had helped to organize the League, but the rapid rise of the organization, which helped to prop up Lewis' business, was not enough to sustain him. Before long, Lewis' empire went bankrupt and the League was disbanded. The building sat vacant, then was taken over by University City in 1930 to serve as its city hall.
While the building was in good shape structurally, the exterior was showing signs of serious wear and tear. Trivers Associates senior architect Bill Chilton says the building had been spot tuck-pointed over the years, but a visual survey of the façade revealed many new locations where the mortar was cracked, loose, or missing. When the contractor arrived to start repointing the bricks, the problem grew in scope. "They tuck-pointed the whole building exterior," says Chilton, "which is wonderful, because it will last a lifetime." In addition, the front steps, made of Indiana limestone, were badly worn and poorly patched. New slabs of stone were ordered and—to help gain a LEED point for construction waste management—the old steps were crushed and recycled as gravel.
The most comprehensive restoration process involved the windows, whose wood sashes still contained the original single-pane glass. Rather than replace the windows with modern, insulated-glass units, Trivers completely refurbished them. All the sashes—including the round and teardrop fixed sashes at the top of the building—were removed and sent to a company that specializes in historic window restoration. They were stripped of paint, damaged sashes were repaired, and the rabbets were enlarged to receive 1-inch-thick insulated-glass panels. After they were primed and repainted, the windows were reinstalled.
Fortunately, the elaborate public spaces inside the tower were relatively intact. Trivers Associates' job was to retain that integrity while modernizing the building. The centerpiece of the two-story rotunda—the sinuous marble stair, a popular setting for photography of local brides—simply required a good cleaning. And a few sins from the past needed to be reversed: One of the arches circumscribing the room had been filled in with a solid wall. That was torn out and rebuilt in keeping with the original oak partitions, then topped with frameless clear glass. The rotunda's original pendant light was restored, and new linear pendant lights were installed in the surrounding offices on the first and second floors. New sprinkler piping was concealed in the walls and soffits, with exposed heads placed strategically to be as unobtrusive as possible.
The building's third and fourth floors are more workmanlike offices, with dropped ceilings and little historic fabric, other than the windows. The fifth floor consists entirely of the council chambers, an elegant domed room painted powder blue and surrounded by a multitude of feminine statuary positioned at regular intervals around the perimeter. Beyond minor patching and a new coat of paint, the room received new low-energy recessed downlights, new torchlike wall sconces, and a dry-pipe sprinkler system with concealed, pop-down heads. Steel-strap reinforcing on the expansive windows, which were bending under high wind loads, was concealed. And existing fan-coil console units beneath the windows were replaced with heat pump units that, while functional, nevertheless detract from the otherwise elegant aesthetic. Throughout the building, restrooms were remodeled and expanded to comply with ADA guidelines.