The centrally located Hillsdale City Hall that just one month ago had its 100-year anniversary is a local gem of architectural design.
City Hall’s limestone foundation was laid in 1911, and the building was completed in 1913. A brochure published in 1915, written in the typical language of the time, praises the building as an architectural and cultural treasure.
The brochure says, “Altogether for material, style, and convenience, this is believed to be the best equipped City Hall in any city of our size in the world.” And ends, “In both internal and external style it is unlike anything ever built.”
While that may not be entirely true, the building is at least unique in its shape. It is one of the only five-sided buildings in Michigan, and its construction preceded that of the United States Pentagon. For a long time, City Hall was an all-purpose building for the city of Hillsdale. It even housed the fire department on its second floor.
The outside of the building has Greek-style architecture with its pedimented roof and clean, round columns. Classical architecture was not uncommon among civic buildings at the time, said Ron Staley of the Christman Company, a construction company located in Lansing.
Staley worked on City Hall in 1996, when the building was in desperate need of renovation.
“From about the ‘60s on, the third floor was closed and used for storage of records,” said Kay Freese, human resources director for the city of Hillsdale. Freese started working for the city in the ‘80s.
“It had really deteriorated quite badly through the years,” Freese said. The third floor was plagued with problems, as Freese remembers it. The floor was rotting, the roof leaked, and worse, pigeons had come to nest in the rafters, often dying after being caught inside for too many days.
In addition to these problems, they needed to expand office space.
“In the early ‘90s, we had come to a decision. We either had to remove ourselves from the building and build a more traditional municipal building in a different location, or City Hall had to be renovated. Ultimately, citizens and the City Council voted to restore it.”
The project would cost roughly $1.2 million. A poster board displayed at the recent 100-year celebration says that when the project was started, almost half of the general public did not want the building to be renovated because they thought it was a waste of money. Even so, Hillsdale moved forward with the project.
City Hall has many beautiful features on the inside, as well. The construction companies worked to restore the third floor back to use, replacing faulty flooring and cleaning the original mosaic tile pieces. They also replaced much of the Venetian plaster wainscoting that had deteriorated over the years.
“Venetian plaster, at the time, was an inexpensive way of getting the look of marble,” Staley said.
To create the look of marble on plaster, typically the artisan will put minerals and dyes in the plaster, and spread it across the plaster’s surface. However, these repairs alone were going to cost about $75,000, as far as Staley can remember.
So instead, the Christman Company found a decorative painter to hand paint the plaster for a much lower price. The renovation was complete in 1997.
“Never in my career have I seen someone who, 10 years later, regretted restoring a historic building,” Staley said. “Hopefully, Hillsdale will look back on this as one of the defining moments of their community.”
Shortly after the renovation was completed, City Council received a letter from Hillsdale residents Dale and Laura McCririe, thanking them for going through with it..
“To our great delight and to the obvious benefit of the city and community as a whole, the Hillsdale City Hall renovation and restoration are magnificent.”