This old hall needs some fixing Dilapidation: Since City Hall was renovated in the 1970s, Baltimore's house of government has fallen into disrepair, from frayed furniture to rats in the front bushes.

February 01, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

The dirt at Baltimore City Hall isn't much of a secret.

It's all there in plain view.

The carpet is stained and held together with tape.

The couches are frayed and splotched with spilled coffee.

The window ledges are covered with bird droppings.

The paint is chipping in the ornate City Council chamber.

"I wish I had the concession on duct tape," quipped Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, the mayor's business liaison, as he strode across the taped center of a threadbare lobby.

Twenty years have passed since the city spent $9.8 million to refurbish and restore the imposing domed building that opened in 1875.

With its polished rotunda, glass-topped courtyards and sleek offices, Baltimore's City Hall became a downtown tourist attraction and the envy of other cities.

Today, it has the genteel shabbiness of an elegant house no one has redecorated in a long time.

The white marble exterior still gleams in the sunshine, but the corridors and conference rooms are unmistakably worn, and the furniture from the 1970s looks outdated.

The dimmed splendor has reached a point few fail to notice. Visiting dignitaries remark on the gloominess of the elevators. The mayor warns his staff to avoid a patched hole in his office floor. Council members jockey to get one of the leather chairs without torn armrests.

And just about everyone has a complaint about the twin plagues of City Hall: the rats in the front bushes and the starlings roosting on the mansard roof.

Yet, in these cost-conscious times, no one has wanted to propose spending money on cosmetic niceties, even for the most visible symbol of city government.

Until now, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has put off all but essential repairs.

But he has concluded that it's time to install new carpeting, at least in the public areas.

His chief concern is lawyerly, not aesthetic; he worries that someone will trip on the frayed carpet and sue the city.

"We've tried to make sure the money is going to where it's really needed -- fixing the roof, the skylights, the gutters," said Lynnette Young, the mayor's chief of staff.

"But we do have to do something about the carpet," she added. "It's a public building, and the public should feel they can come in and see [that] what represents them to the rest of the world looks good."

She's studying carpet samples and getting estimates but is still fretting over the cost.

"It's a huge building; it's not like redoing your living room," she said.

The public lobbies and corridors encompass 25,000 square feet, and the carpet would cost some $60,000 to $70,000 in materials alone, according to the City Hall curator, Jeanne March Davis.

L When all is done, the price tag could well be over $100,000.

And as the building's historian and arbiter of good taste, Davis points out the catch to redecorating: Make one improvement and the need for another becomes more painfully obvious. A mauve carpet could cause the bright green and orange couches to look more out of place.

"You can't change piecemeal," she said. "And it's hard -- if you spend money on things, you're extravagant. If you don't, people will gripe that the building looks bad."

A group of people who remember the times when City Hall looked better -- and much worse -- will visit Friday. In honor of Baltimore's bicentennial, all the politicians who worked in the building have been invited to return for a rededication ceremony.

The invitation list reads like a Who's Who of City Hall and includes William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor and governor who renovated City Hall.

In 1973, midway through his first term as mayor, Schaefer toured Boston's restored City Hall and came up with a grand plan for Baltimore's then-dilapidated building.

The Schaefer administration tried to raise money by selling "Save the City Hall Dome" bumper stickers, then used bonds for an overhaul.

When the gleaming City Hall reopened in December 1976, it had seven floors instead of four, marble columns and cherry railings, and ceremonial rooms in the style of the 1870s.

Politicians from other big cities came to admire. Visitors from Philadelphia grumbled that their City Hall was filthy and gloomy by comparison; it wasn't cleaned up until the early 1990s.

Schmoke's chief of staff said she wants to fix up City Hall so people will again leave impressed.

Recently, the Schmoke administration put brighter lights around the front courtyard, power-washed the building and removed the ivy that was a hiding spot for rats.

City crews also have put "hot foot" gel on the window ledges to keep off the starlings and pigeons. But the birds always return, admitted Kurt Kocher, a Public Works spokesman, who said, "We discourage them, but we haven't found a permanent way to keep the birds away."

Most people working at City Hall have learned to live with inconveniences that they consider as routine as the birds.

Councilwoman Sheila Dixon sits a good distance back from desks to avoid running her stockings on ragged edges.

Lorraine Laszczynski, the council's executive secretary, packed up her things the day red dye leaked from the floor above.

They said they recognize Baltimoreans might well share the view of Michele Rosenberg, a community activist in Dickeyville who often attends the council meetings.

"The inside doesn't bother me at all," she said. "I'm so worried about the rest of the state of City Hall. As far as I'm concerned, the bathroom works, the water fountain works, and that's fine with me."

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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