It took $10 million and 15 tons of sandstone, but quirky Salt Lake City Hall is now renovated

With all its spookiness, gingerbread-house charm and sheer character as a historic public building, Salt Lake City Hall is now ready for another generation. Or maybe even another century.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski invited the public to Washington Square on Friday to see the newly renovated building in its replenished stone skin that underwent two years of work.

Those who attended were given tours of the building’s exterior, highlighting the $10 million facelift, repaired windows and extensive seismic overhaul beneath the 124-year-old city landmark.

Seeing the quirky building up close “is one of those larger-than-life historic architecture moments, where the scale is so different from the ground when you see it high up,” said Kirk Huffaker, executive director of Preservation Utah, formerly the Utah Heritage Foundation.

“You really understand the care that not only went into this restoration but also the original building to create something that has some mystique and that air of craftsmenship, even when it’s three or four stories high,” Huffaker said.

Originally built as a kind of a non-Mormon answer to the LDS Church’s imposing temple further north on State Street, the City-County building at 451 S. State St. is an architectural wonder and its most recent restoration — the first since the 1980s — involved some amazing feats.

City Hall was open for government throughout, even though part of the time while wrapped in black scaffolding several stories high. Hundreds of employees, residents, elected officials and seasonal festival-goers flowed through its lawns and hallways daily amid sometimes noisy, dusty work.

The general contractor, Salt Lake City-based construction firm Big-D, shaved an entire year off what was to be a three-year project, thanks to two mild winters in a row. “Mother Nature had most of the role in that,” said Rich Hazel, project manager with Big-D.

Tons of work

In over 200,000 worker-hours, crews removed about four tons of damaged stone from the building’s lower levels and its vaulting tower — but added another 15 tons to the structure overall. Much of that is an Ohio Berea sandstone carefully color matched to replace the original Kyune sandstone once quarried outside Price.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune The view from the roof of the City and County building looking east during a tour of the building, Thursday, May 26, 2016.

Underneath the Romanesque Revival-style structure, crews crawled into dungeon-like spaces to cut at portions of the foundation. The seismic upgrade, ironically, made the building safer by letting it be more flexible to wobble in case of a major earthquake, potentially adding centuries to its life.

Specialty stone masons who patched and restored many of those strange exterior figures and grotesques carved their work by hand, in some of the highest traditions of restoration masonry. No computers or laser-guided saws were used, only basic carving tools.

Where experts crafting replacements for badly damaged stones had no original photos to work from, they drew artistic inspiration from Utah dinosaurs or their own faces.

Craftsmen with Salt Lake City’s Abstract Masonry Restoration refurbished or replaced nearly 300 pieces of decorative rock, ranging from small segments to fully rendered carvings weighing more than a ton. At times, what one worker called “their healing arts” required them to lift and delicately place huge pieces with cranes, several stories off the ground.

Like many others involved in the project, Dawn Wagner, who is now a deputy city engineer but helped supervise the City-County renovation, called it “a once-in-a-lifetime project to work on.”

Digging through history

Seismic modeling has gotten more sophisticated since the City-County building’s last update in mid-1980s. Evidence now suggests that when “the Big One” hits Utah, that long-predicted major earthquake could be far more devastating than experts believed.

Renovations to the building between 1973 and 1989 assumed a magnitude 6.8 earthquake was coming, but experts now agree that fault lines running under the Wasatch Front have a geological history of producing a magnitude 7 once every 300 to 350 years.

Engineers three decades ago installed a cutting-edge system of rubber-padded couplers known as base isolators beneath City Hall for seismic protection. But the building still “sat rigid” on its concrete and Red Butte stone foundation, “without any provision for possible movement,” according to project documents from Big-D Construction.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Mayor Jackie Biskupski and master stone mason Jeff Eakle maneuver a lift into place to set the final capstone — in Eakle's likeness — in completion of the Salt Lake City and County Building rehabilitation project, Wednesday, June 13, 2018.

Studies indicated that a 7.3 magnitude earthquake could shift the building by as much as 10 to 16 inches, exceeding the 14-inch slide assumed in the design of its base isolators. Some computer models even suggested that without improvements, City Hall might fall over.

Crawling through basement spaces sometimes four feet-by-two feet or less, Big-D workers drilled, sawed, hacked and jackhammered parts of the foundation between those base isolators. Often laying on their sides while they worked, crews then placed a series of new foundation segments, totaling over 500 cubic yards of concrete, and threaded through a network of structural steel elements for reinforcement.

“We kind of took those bumpers out of the way, so the building can breathe and move even more,” said Hazel, project manager at Big-D.

About $2.7 million of the renovation’s price tag went to those seismic improvements, according to Wagner. The thinking goes, City Hall might still sustain damage in a major quake, but hopefully, it won’t collapse.

With as many as 100 workers on site at any given time, Big-D crews also fixed City Hall’s windows and some of its balconies along with its plumbing, electrical, landscaping and irrigation systems.

‘A lot of symbolism’

Some say the City-County building is haunted. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the ghostly effects that time and air pollution had in distorting the exterior’s bizarre stone creatures.

A 2012 study before the overhaul mapped its tan stone surface in detail, sometimes deploying drones. The review highlighted a surprisingly wide variety of stone shapes and statuary. Sea monsters, grotesques, gargoyles — distinct because they spew water — all swirl over the exterior along with other mythic animals and symbolic representations of Justice, Liberty and Commerce.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abstract Masonry Restoration handled the stone masonry repairs on the recent restoration of Salt Lake City's City-County Building, with its craftsmen bringing back to useful life hundreds of grotesque, gargoyles and other decorative stone pieces and statuary. Owner John Lambert at Abstract Masonry Restoration's Salt Lake City yard, Friday June 22, 2018.

The study also revealed that half to three-quarters of those stone features had deteriorated in some way, rendering some of the carvings unrecognizable. Scores of decorative features and paisley flourishes, much of their sustaining mortar dissolved with the years, threatened to come loose one day, as did many of the bigger stones.

Sections of Kyune sandstone sloughing off the building were pulled down and, where the city’s budget allowed, replaced. Stone workers with Abstract Masonry Restoration focused on returning those exterior elements to some of their former glory while also extending their life, said the company’s founder and owner John Lambert.

In many ways, Lambert said, the work evoked a potent connection with the past for Abstract’s craftsmen.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune l-r Mayor Jackie Biskupski and master stone mason Jeff Eakle maneuver a lift into place to set the final capstone Ð in Eakle's likeness Ð in completion of the Salt Lake City and County Building rehabilitation project, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. The two-year rehabilitation restored the buildingÕs stone facade, repaired windows, and performed a seismic upgrade of the historic building built in 1894.

“Many times, it was the original mason’s actual face that was carved into the stone,” Lambert said. “A lot of symbolism. I mean, when we see original chisel marks that are still intact, that affects us on a deep level — because we’re there.”

Restoration work involved poring over City Hall’s own archival photos — and one found across the street at Little America Hotel — for a guide to reshaping badly decayed elements. Where there weren’t clues on their past appearance, Lambert said Abstract’s master carver, Jeff Eakle, was given artistic license to craft them himself, in keeping with the architect’s original intent.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Master stone mason Jeff Eakle left his own likeness in the capstone on the south side of the Salt Lake City and County Building, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. Eakle, who was born in Utah, grew up in France from age 3 to 29 in the Loire Valley and credits his love of architecture, masonry and career path to life there.

Eakle based two of those larger carvings on Kosmoceratops, a horned, plant-eating dinosaur discovered in Utah’s Kaiparowits formation in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. And one of the final stones put on the building last week was a likeness of Eakle’s own face.

He and the mayor climbed a 50-foot boom lift together to place that last capstone on City Hall’s south side.

“It’s autographing your work with excellence,” Lambert said of Eakle’s likeness. “He is extraordinarily talented.”