Even as some municipal offices are being shifted to the Hub in the city’s southern section, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop is moving forward with plans to preserve, repair, and enhance City Hall. 

Earlier this month, the City Council voted to award two professional service contracts to HMR Architects, of Princeton, for design work related to infrastructure improvements—inside and outside—to the historic building at 280 Grove St. 

Opened in 1896 and designed by then-renowned architect Lewis Broome, City Hall was badly damaged in September 1979 by a spectacular fire that destroyed sections of the roof, two cupolas over the council chambers, and the main lobby.  The fire, for which no cause was ever determined, started in an exposed third-floor ceiling.  At the time, the building was undergoing a two-year renovation.

Since then, various mayoral administrations have authorized one or another interior upgrade to the building, including restoration of the original tiled flooring that was covered up by linoleum in the 1960s, installation of new unisex bathrooms on the third floor, and renovation of basement space to create two caucus rooms, space for city offices, and an entrance for the disabled.

In April, the council approved bonding $5 million to cover repairs to the building plus $3 million to create a park at the City Hall parking lot. With the recent decision as to which vendor to hire, HMR will get $419,873 to provide plans for exterior rehabilitation of City Hall and $367,500 to devise plans for fourth-floor alterations. 

Because both jobs are considered “professional services exempt from public bidding,” HMR was awarded the contracts even though its quotes were not the lowest the city received informally from various firms. Both amounts were on the low end, however. 

In its proposal submitted to the city, HMR, which did design work on the exterior restoration of the Passaic County Courthouse, said it plans to check on City Hall’s existing building conditions by using digital photography, drawings, and information from city experts, along with a “high-lift” for up-close views and a drone.

“There is currently evidence of differential settlement on all sides of the building,” HMR advised. “While first impressions lead us to believe that the settlement is the result of movement, or crushing within the brick foundation walls, geo-technical survey can confirm whether or not settlement in the earth below the footings is likely.”

To that end, the firm says it will arrange to conduct seven test borings around the building’s perimeter drilled to depths of 50 to 75 feet during a six- to seven-day period. If settling is found, the firm says it may be due to poor drainage around the building and resultant deterioration.

City Hall’s façade has also suffered damage. Window-unit air-conditioning combined with water runoff all around the building; aging or missing “weather caps;” the lack of “drip edge; failing joints at the balcony; and poor drainage are contributing to the deterioration of stone ornamentation and to extensive staining at the ceiling at the main entrance portico, the firm said. 

At the roof level, a textured latex coating of brick parapet walls appears to be trapping moisture in the brick, resulting in damage to the bricks, the company added. 

HMR said it may recommend the city install energy-efficient windows along the building and restore stained-glass windows in the council chambers. It will also likely propose plaza and landscaping improvements to divert water away from the building and into city stormwater systems.

Plans for alterations to the building’s unoccupied fourth floor include adding air-conditioning, elevator access, new toilets, and possibly a kitchen pantry area.

HMR projects it will take about a year to complete its plans and issue the corresponding recommendations. Thereafter, it should take a contractor approximately two years to make the improvements.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...