Columbus’ city hall is 113 years old. To Jeff Johnson, it’s a testament to its builders’ craftsmanship.
Johnson, a project manager with J5 Broaddus for city hall’s in-progress renovation, lauded the work of the original construction last week during a tour of the facility.
“These craftsmen that did this kind of work — they don’t exist anymore,” he said. “I’ve got 30 years under my belt, and you don’t find craftsmanship like this anymore. It just doesn’t happen.”
The reason, as Johnson told it, is because in modern construction, contractors can just buy the parts needed for a building, rather than making it all by hand as was needed when city hall was built in 1903.
Now, as the $1.3 million interior renovation continues, contractors must preserve and restore the original pieces of the structure.
Johnson said the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is funding the project through a Community Heritage Preservation grant, checks on the project every few weeks. He said MDAH checks to make sure the structure’s original parts — such as windows, doors and plaster finishes — are remaining as they were when the building was constructed.
“They come out and approve certain pieces,” Johnson said. “They will approve all the door hardware that goes on the original door. The new doors, they don’t care, but what we’re working on (with the originals) has to match or complement the original hardware.”
Site Supervisor Justin Wilkinson, with Starkville-based Craddock Construction, said the renovation is about 37 percent complete. He said the project should be “substantially complete” by the end of November, with only a few minor touches remaining.
Work on the second floor is further ahead than on the first floor — Johnson said it’s normal to work upstairs first, then move downstairs. Much of the plaster upstairs has been restored, and much of the metal framework for sheetrock walls is in place.
Rick Mason, of J5 Broaddus, said city administration is scheduled to begin moving back into city hall by January.
Johnson said three fireplaces have been uncovered since demolition tore the old walls out to reveal the originals.
After finding the fireplaces, Johnson said he researched two of them — which are missing mantles — so appropriately-matching mantles could be installed. He said part of that involved using an old photo of a former mayor — whose name Johnson didn’t know — standing by the fireplaces as a reference for the style of mantle.
“I have looked at more historical stuff on this job than I have in my life,” Johnson said. “I’ve probably spent about 12 hours trying to find the right mantles to go back in here.”
The fireplaces aren’t the only discoveries that have come during the project. Earlier in the year, officials told The Dispatch an old pistol was found near a now-removed toilet in a first-floor vault. Demolition has also turned up old liquor bottles in the basement and even campaign cards from Claude Robertson, a mayoral candidate who ran an unsuccessful bid for the office in the early 1970s.
For Johnson, all the work and care that’s going into restoring facets of city hall to how they were in 1903 is a lot like honoring the vision of those who built it.
“I believe we’re stepping back in time and bringing this old girl back to glory,” he said.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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