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City Hall - Restoration of the Council Chambers

Glenn Alvin Wrigley, AIA

If judged solely by the review published more than 110 years ago in the September 1895 edition of Architectural Record, the New City Hall of Jersey City might have been long dismissed as a forgettable piece of late 19th century architecture. The magazine offered no verbal economy of words to describe architect Louis Broome’s work as “vile”, adding that a “resulting edifice fairly reeks of vulgarity as reeks the new City Hall of Jersey City”. A century of time and use have somewhat softened opinions of Broome’s beaux arts style edifice. Its largely unaltered exterior, and its uninterrupted use as a seat of government does make it unique among municipal structures in New Jersey.

The Council Chambers, however, had undergone periodic repair and renovation over the decades, often as some concession to changing times, and usually at the expense of the room's original intricate detailing. Successive layers of paint intended to freshen up the space covered over hand-painted decorative borders, and obscured the intricate detailing of plaster friezes. Oak wainscots and railings were given a dark stain treatment sometime in the 1920's, and were later given heavy coats of shellac that robbed them of their natural beauty. The final (and most damaging) element was the addition in the 1970’s of 12 x 12 ceiling tiles, and sound absorptive fabric material on the walls, intended to eliminate the echo when used with a properly designed sound system, but the result was an acoustically “dead” space lacking in warmth or appeal.

A fire in 1979 that started in the attic (during a repair project) heavily damaged the building, and resulted in a significant amount of water damage in the Council Chambers. Deferred maintenance created other problems, as paint peeled, fixtures went without repair, and the room became more and more a dreary in appearance and stature. Discussions among City administration and council members regarding renovation date back as far as 1980, but plans were always placed on hold due to more pressing matters. Then in 1985 with the election of Anthony Cucci as Mayor, the Council Chambers found a great benefactor in his wife Anna, an artist and photographer by profession. It was during this time that Anna recognized the need for renovation, and through her efforts, the first thorough cleaning of the space was conducted, as well as ceiling and plaster repair, carpeting, and lighting improvements.

Anna was also responsible for collecting and later restoring and framing, the entire portrait gallery of mayors dating back to the 1840’s. No doubt her campaign would have continued. But on December 12 1988, she and her husband were on an official visit to the sister city of Cusco, Peru when the mountain sightseeing train they were aboard plunged some 600 feet into a ravine. Anna was killed along with several others. It was a tragic and bitter loss. In recognition of her tireless work on behalf of Jersey City, the City Council renamed the Chambers in her honor.

Rebound & Restoration

Jersey City’s continued renaissance as a major center of business and commerce, as well as an attractive place to live and work, dictates that its public infrastructure reflect its growing popularity. In order to take the first meaningful steps towards restoration of City Hall, as well as to help the City’s most recognizable public room meet the demands of contemporary times, the decision was made to undertake a major restoration which would return the Council Chambers back to its near-original appearance. At the same time, the room will be provided with a new HVAC system, restored and improved lighting, sound systems, and an interactive audio/visual system. Woodwork and ornamental plaster will be restored, and repairs made to the stained glass windows and lay light for the dome.

Historic analysis and the sampling of finishes revealed magnificent painted borders and friezes, as well as plaster and wood details once lost to multiple layers of paint and varnish or other modern intrusions that detracted from the quality of the interior space. Stripping of the wood wainscots, railings, and furniture revealed richly grained oak and mahogany, which would be carefully repaired, but not over-restored, since the decision was that the wear and tear helped tell the story of the rich public and political history of the room. The analysis of the sequence of original application was important to arrive at colors and finishes that would be associated with a turn of the century appearance. The original chandeliers were rebuilt using new wiring and fixtures, and have been enhanced with new concealed up-lighting, which will light the ornate wood coffered ceiling in ways not previously possible.

The new HVAC system was installed with great sensitivity towards original architectural elements. Unobtrusive narrow diffusers and concealed grilles provide a low-pressure, balanced air flow and comfortable temperatures for year-round use. The mahogany council dais work surface was modified and lowered to provide the nine Council members and the City Clerk with a modern audio/visual system. Each member has a monitor for the review of presentations, with an automated roll-down screen within the Chambers to allow for comfortable public review, as well as assisted listening stations for the hearing impaired.

This eleven month $2,100,000 project was partially funded by a $300,000 grant from the Hudson County Open Space & Historic Preservation Trust Fund, and was completed in November 2008.

Restoration of the Council Chambers Image Set 1 (pdf 5MB)
Restoration of the Council Chambers Image Set 2 (pdf 4.5 MB)

City of Jersey City—Restoration of the Council Chambers

Client:

City of Jersey City / Division of Architecture
Jerramiah T. Healy, Mayor
Glenn A. Wrigley, AIA, Chief Architect
Chris Charas, Project Manager
Robert Fossetta, Construction Inspector

Consultants:

Holt Morgan Russell Architects, Princeton, NJ
Eric Holtermann, AIA, Project Manager

Contractor:

Jim Luongo Construction, Inc., Nutley, NJ

Glenn Alvin Wrigley, AIA, is Chief Architect & Director of Architecture for the City of Jersey City. His twenty-five years of professional practice in both the public and private sector include buildings for dozens of municipalities, as well as consulting work for county, state, and federal agencies. His work also includes major building programs in the paper and pharmaceutical industries, as well as research facilities for the Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory, Columbia University, and the University of Maryland.

 

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