City Hall May Be Worthy of Register

Published in 2014 by The St. Ignace News

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St. Ignace City Hall might be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, owing to its interesting architecture and the point in time that it represents. Both the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and USDA Rural Development office have concluded that City Hall appears to be eligible.

Listing on the registry is purely honorary and neither provides any official protection for the building nor requires any additional responsibilities regarding its upkeep, said Robbert McKay of SHPO.

“Getting on the register officially changes nothing, but it’s a great [promotional] tool,” he said. “You’re allowed to buy a big bronze plaque and it sounds good — being recognized by the federal government suggests more importance than what you and I might attribute to it.”

Although the city might pursue this designation in the future, it has yet to begin looking into the process, City Manager Les Therrian said. City Hall is a 4,000- square-foot, three-story building at 693 North State Street. Fifteen people work there.

uildings on the registry are at least 50 years old, architecturally or socially important, and represent broad patterns of history in the community, state, or nation.

St. Ignace City Hall is a particularly good representation of governmental architecture built during the Great Depression, with a virtually intact exterior and many remaining interior features, despite recent renovations, said Robert Christensen, the National Register of Historic Places coordinator at SHPO.

“It seems to retain its historic character to a very strong degree,” Mr. Christensen said.

The building is characterized by a combination of both Classical and Art Deco architectural styles. Traditional elements, like a simplified cornice and pilasters flanking the main door, hearken back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Modern, geometric designs and motifs, such as the decorative stonework around the roof, represent contemporary sophistication, Mr. McKay said.

This particular intersection of styles was popular with municipal buildings, post offices, and banks during the 1930s, when City Hall was built. Using classical styles instilled confidence at a time when institutions needed people to believe in their stability and strength. The incorporation of Art Deco elements made it appear up to date and accessible.

“Classical architecture can be a little stark in some instances,” Mr. McKay said. “Art Deco and Art Nouveau were…about humanizing that: organic forms, decoration, and putting it into a bit of a human scale. Art Deco, in particular, was about reflecting that same stability, but in modern, sleek, human forms, using modern materials and details.”

Much of the historic decoration remains. The exterior is nearly intact and throughout the halls and stairwells, visitors can see the original decorative plasterwork and terrazzo tile. Much of the historic wood trim remains, as well, along with the red gum veneer in the city council chambers, which was noted as a distinctive element when the building was completed in August 1940.

The building was designed by David E. Anderson, an architect from Marquette who designed two buildings currently on the National Register of Historic Places, the Vista Theater in Negaunee, added in 2005, and the Michigamme Lake Lodge, also known as the Sam Cohodas Lodge, near Champion, added in 1991.

St. Ignace City Hall was built as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, one of many designed to provide jobs during the Great Depression. The project was originally estimated to cost $50,000, half of which would be paid for by the city. It ended up costing $80,000, nearly 70% of which was paid for by the city, after federal legislation forced the cost of all skilled labor onto the project sponsors.

The difference was made up for by bond sales.

By August 1940, C. P. Becker, a member of the building committee, informed the city council that businessmen from Sault Ste. Marie reported tourists that had passed through St. Ignace “simply ‘raved’” about the new building.

When it was new, tourists to St. Ignace would stop at City Hall to ask questions and request tours.

The “modern beauty” was completed despite setbacks and was seen as a symbol of hope; heralding St. Ignace’s renewed progress and promising the city a way to meet future demands.

“The St. Ignace city hall is not only a matter of pride to local residents. It is recognized by WPA as an outstanding example of fine handiwork. As an architectural triumph it leaves nothing to the imagination.” said a Republican-News and St. Ignace Enterprise article announcing the building’s opening on August 10, 1940.

By World War II, architects were no longer designing municipal buildings in the same way. Architectural styles had changed, favoring steel, glass, and concrete, and painstaking detail was seen as unnecessary.

“One of the ideas behind these federal projects was to put people to work, so having ornament requires something other than just building the building. Additional detail put additional people to work,” Mr. Christensen said.

Many of those details have been preserved in City Hall, and renovation work is also taking place. New ventilation equipment was dropped down in several offices, including that of the city manager, so the historic trim could still be seen. The ventilation was run through the ceiling of the council chambers to preserve the council chamber’s original appearance as much as possible.

The original single-pane windows used throughout the building leak badly and need to be replaced, but Mr. Therrian and SHPO officers have yet to agree on what the replacement should be. Mr. Therrian would prefer vinyl or wrapped aluminum window frames, as they are more energy efficient and easier to maintain. On Friday, August 22, SHPO asked for an engineering study that would determine the cost of cleaning, painting, and maintenance should City Hall retain wood window frames.

“I want the outside to be as maintenance free as possible,” Mr. Therrian said.

The study could cost between $6,000 and $8,000. Although funding from the USDA loan would most likely be approved to cover the study, it would take away the money available to spend on the windows, Mr. Therrian said.

“It’s some extra due diligence to make sure we really are fully considering the impact on the historical character of the building,” Mr. McKay said.

The current windows were last painted about 25 years ago, when aluminum storm windows were added.

The combination of historic preservation and contemporary functionality requires renovators to look for solutions that accomplish what needs to be done while still maintaining the historic character of a building, Mr. Christensen said. “Things can be done to maintain character without going overboard.”

Because the renovation work at City Hall is financed by a federal loan provided by the USDA and the building is old enough to be considered historic, all plans related to the project must be approved by SHPO.

SHPO prioritizes the preservation of spaces that the public is most likely to see. The outside is the most public space. Entryways, lobbies, public meeting rooms, and offices follow. In utility spaces, where most employees don’t even go, such as the boiler room, preservation does not matter.

“It’s just a balancing act,” Mr. McKay said. “You try to maintain character of the building while doing what you need to do.”