SARATOGA SPRINGS — From the outside, Saratoga Springs City Hall remains the same imposing red brick monument to High Victorian Saratoga that it’s been since Ulysses S. Grant was president, looming over the corner of Broadway and Lake Avenue.
Inside, though, nearly nothing is going to be the same: New office walls are being framed everywhere, and room is being made for a disabled-accessible elevator. For the first time, the building will have air conditioning.
Contractors hired over the summer are working on a $10 million renovation project city officials decided on after last year’s lightning strike and subsequent flooding damaged parts of the building’s interior. City officials hope city offices can move back in by year’s end.
From the basement level, where the police station has remained even as the rest of the building was vacated, to the third-floor “music hall” that sustained the most damage, the city is installing new wiring, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems. It is the building’s most extensive renovation since the 1930s.
“We could never have done this if there were people in here,” said city Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, whose department is overseeing the project.
The work is all being done with an awareness of the history of the building, which opened in 1871. The city’s Design Review Commission and the private Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation have both had input. “We’re trying to save as much historic woodwork and tin [ceilings] as we can,” Scirocco said during a tour of the work.
The lightning struck during a Friday night storm on Aug. 17, 2018, and it led to a small fire inside the ceiling of the top-floor music hall. But far more damaging, a storm drain pipe broke, channeling the runoff from the driving rainstorm into the building. There was little anyone could do until the rain stopped. “We stood there and watched it,” Scirocco recalled. “The fire was only near the ceiling, but it let a lot of water in.”
Most of the damage was on the Lake Avenue side of the building. Fortunately, the City Council chambers on the first floor saw only minor damage, and artwork there was spared. The church pew seating has been removed during the renovations, but will return.
Almost immediately, the decision was made to relocate city government operations to the city Recreation Center on Vanderbilt Avenue, where they remain. The reconstruction is on schedule to move most offices back to City Hall around the end of the year, Scirocco said.
Architects Clark Patterson Lee of Albany were hired to to design the renovation. Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker of Albany was already working on a plan to renovate the city Finance Department offices, and Scirocco credited both with coming up with the plan now being carried out. MLB Construction of Malta is serving as general contractor.
Contracts weren’t awarded until this summer because the city first had to spend about $780,000 removing asbestos, including floor tiles.
Under the plan, the building’s entire basement level will be converted to public safety uses. The wing that previously housed the Department of Public Works administrative offices will become the home of the Police Department’s command staff, which was previously on a different floor. Building code enforcement will also be in that wing.
On the first floor, at least one large window that was bricked over has been exposed. The finance, accounts and mayor’s offices will remain where they are, while the public works administrative offices will move into the space that the city engineer and zoning and planning staffs had previously occupied.
Also on the first floor, a new set of glass doors with the city seal will be added just inside the large wooden front doors, with the new public elevator immediately to the right.
The basement and first floor offices should be ready by the end of this year, so the Recreation Center can go back to recreational uses. After all those months as offices, Scirocco said the gym floor will need to be refinished before basketball and other activities can resume.
Work on the second and third floors isn’t scheduled to wrap up until April.
Some of the most extensive renovations will be on the second floor, where the entire floor will become space for the city courts; the courts had half the floor before. During the renovation, the courts are in the Lincoln Baths at Saratoga Spa State Park.
Before the lightning strike, the state was pressuring the city to establish a second courtroom and facilities for a second full-time judge. The renovation will accomplish that with a new courtroom, jury deliberation room, attorney-client meeting rooms and other court offices.
“It’s all a state court requirement,” said Mike Veitch, the Public Works Department’s business manager.
On the third floor, planning and engineering will occupy the space overlooking Broadway that was the state Supreme Court Library for Saratoga County, which has been permanently moved to the County Courthouse in Ballston Spa.
The music hall has been stripped to the rafters, and will emerge with a better sound system and acoustics, better lighting, and a kitchenette to accommodate public performances. Like the rest of the building, the hall will also have air conditioning for the first time — something that has been much-needed during summer night performances.
“It’s a nice space,” Scirocco said. “We want to make it so the public can really use it.”
In the past, the hall has been used for concerts, dances, public meetings and even boxing matches, but Scirocco believes it could be better-used.
An insurance settlement over the fire and water damage isn’t final, but is expected to cover nearly half the cost.