Saratoga County

Constant maintenance retains charm of 1871 Saratoga Springs City Hall

Saratoga Springs City Hall, now 110 years old and still the home of city government, needs a lot of
Deborah LaBreche, assistant city engineer in Saratoga Springs, stands Thursday on the roof of City Hall where deicing equioment was installed last year.
Deborah LaBreche, assistant city engineer in Saratoga Springs, stands Thursday on the roof of City Hall where deicing equioment was installed last year.

Saratoga Springs City Hall, now 110 years old and still the home of city government, needs a lot of tender care and regular maintenance.

The roof of the historic building has a leak or two, the police headquarters in the basement needs renovations, and City Court officials would like a little more room on the second floor.

These problems are predictable in a building that opened in 1871 and was expanded with an annex on its east end in 1889, said Assistant City Engineer Deborah LaBreche.

“There are leaks in the music hall,” LaBreche said. “Behind the stage there is a bucket that has to be emptied.”

At a glance

• Saratoga Springs City Hall was opened in 1871 and an annex was added to its east end in 1889.

• The tower and 5,276-pound bell were removed for safety reasons in 1934.

The music hall is on City Hall’s third floor. The city rents out the space that can accommodate at least 300 people for dance festivals, weddings and stage productions. The City Council also uses it for important public meetings.

The roof leak above the music hall will be a thing of the past once the city awards a contract for the replacement of part of the roof in the coming month or so. Part of the roof is copper and a portion is a rubber material that hasn’t been replaced in nearly 25 years.

“These problems aren’t a surprise,” LaBreche said. She said the old rubber roof will be replaced before the end of the year.

LaBreche has been a city employee for 10 years. She coordinates maintenance and renovations projects at City Hall and the city-owned Canfield Casino in Congress Park for the Department of Public Works.

She loves the history behind the old buildings.

“It’s such a privilege working with this building and the Casino,” she said.

Projects done

One of her favorite projects was the replacement in 2008 of old, crumbling steps in front of City Hall at Broadway and Lake Avenue, and the return of two original, refurbished cast-iron lions to the places they stood in 1910. In 2009 the entrance was upgraded with a beautiful mahogany doorway donated by Zanetti Millworks in Middle Grove.

The door project was a major priority of Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco when he took office.

“The building is old,” Scirocco said. Things are constantly in need of repair and replacement. His department does much of the work. “The exterior is in good shape,” Scirocco said. Glass in the windows has been replaced with more energy-efficient triple-pane glass.

old tower

When the building was opened it had a lofty bell tower with a 6-foot diameter clock perched atop.

“The plainness in composition was made up for by a rich array of Italian Style Victorian ornament in brick and stone and by an elaborate cornice,” writes Skidmore College professor emeritus James K. Kettlewell in his book, “Saratoga Springs: An Architectural History” (1991, Lyrical Ballad Book Store).

The tower and 5,276-pound bell inside it were removed in 1934 for safety reasons. When the huge bell cast by Menelly Bell Co. of Troy was rung, it would shake the whole building.

Scirocco would like to see the tower replaced some day with a lighter tower of the same design and an electronic bell and clock.

The tower project, at present at least, is still a dream. It is not included in the city’s 2012 to 2016 capital projects budget.

Five years ago, there was a $17 million proposal to build a public safety and court building behind City Hall. The building proposal, which was never approved by the City Council, would have been located where the parking lot off High Rock Avenue now lies.

City officials say they are now satisfied with the space they have in the original building. Public Safety Commissioner Richard Wirth said in these difficult economic times it’s unrealistic to consider such an expensive new facility.

Instead, Wirth has included $46,490 in the recently approved 2012 capital budget that would start renovations of the police headquarters in the basement.

Another $90,000 would be included in the 2013 capital spending plan for improvements to the entrance to the headquarters on Lake Avenue as well improvements to offices and other spaces. Scirocco said the city DPW could perform many of these improvements with its own staff.

upkeep worth it

Mayor Scott Johnson, like assistant city engineer LaBreche, loves the old building. He said the city’s capital budget includes $200,000 every year for care and maintenance of city-owned buildings, including City Hall.

“It’s a very pivotal part of our architectural landscape on Broadway,” Johnson said. “We need to do everything we can to preserve its integrity for future generations. Older buildings need care.”

The courtroom on the building’s second floor is a beautiful example of restored and maintained woodwork. It’s also historic in its own right: On Aug. 21, 1878, some 75 attorneys from 20 states and the District of Columbia founded the American Bar Association right where City Court is held each day.

City Judge Jeffrey Wait said he was against the proposal to build a public safety and court building when it was discussed five or six years ago. But Wait said the court could use more space on the second floor; there is not enough room for the court clerks, storage, or meeting rooms for attorneys and clients.

The state Office of Court Administration rents the courtroom space as well as the state Supreme Court Law Library for the 4th Judicial District on City Hall’s third floor. The library, lined with legal texts of all kinds, is staffed by the Office of Court Administration personnel and used by attorneys. It is open to the public.

Wait said if the Public Safety department, across the hall from the courtroom, could be moved to another space or another building, then the court could expand into this space and even have a second, smaller courtroom.

But until that happens, City Court makes do with its current space. Wait advocated for and finally received a holding cell near the courtroom for prisoners awaiting a hearing or arraignment. The space is located adjacent to Wait’s office behind the courtroom.

When the building opened in 1871 it was called the Saratoga Springs Town Hall and that name remains on the front of the building. Saratoga Springs didn’t become a city until 1915. Four years after the Town Hall opened, the music hall was the scene of the founding of the American Bankers Association on July 20, 1875.

LaBreche said old buildings, such as City Hall and the Canfield Casino, “have a soul.”

But sometimes City Hall can have a cold heart. She said one of the issues is that the steam boiler heating system has only three zones. The steam heat is piped to radiators throughout the building.

“The police are sitting on top of the boiler; it’s right under the police department,” she said, describing winter conditions in City Hall. “Public Safety can be very, very hot, when in the mayor’s office [on the first floor] you can see your breath.” The city has a long-term contract with Johnson Controls of Syracuse for energy management work. She and Scirocco said Johnson Controls has helped the city deal with some of the heating issues.

Back in 2007, then-Finance Commissioner Matthew McCabe proposed selling City Hall to the private sector and using the money to build a new public safety and court facility. This never became a reality.

LaBreche said she’s happy the building was never sold. “I think City Hall should be the heartbeat of the town,” she said. “It has always been here. We make do with our staff and resources here.”

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