Civic Pride

PROJECT Hamilton City Hall Renovations, Hamilton, Ontario
ARCHITECTS Garwood-Jones & Hanham Architects in association with McCallum Sather Architects Inc.
TEXT David Steiner
PHOTOS Jessie Colin Jackson

Hamilton City Hall is a building whose fortunes reflect its city. Built on a manufacturing economy, Hamilton declined over several decades as its industries slowly disappeared. Half a century ago, it was a city with many options. But as infrastructure crumbled, the city grew shabby. Employment opportunities disappeared, and buildings aged without needed repairs. Recently, a number of factors (steady jobs in the health-care sector, low cost of living, proximity to Toronto) have changed the city’s fortunes. Anticipating an urban revival, Hamilton chose to restore its City Hall, making an architectural monument fit for contemporary civic requirements. And the best thing that everyone involved did was refrain from tinkering with the original.

In a city like Hamilton, where the recent past has been disappointing, the urge to set a course for new territory in architectural design is understandable. Civic leaders often look to cutting-edge landmarks as a way to bolster their city’s image. Such routes are often misguided though, creating architectural oddities. Instead, Hamilton proceeded with restraint, and a classic Canadian building was resurrected.

Hamilton City Hall was originally built in 1960. At the time, Stanley Roscoe was the City’s architect, and he designed numerous civic buildings, all in a modern style. For City Hall, he led a design team that produced one of the finer examples of International Style Modernism in Ontario. After 50 years, however, the structure no longer had the capacity to serve its occupants appropriately. Poorly insulated walls, excessive heat gain and loss through an outdated curtain wall, no barrier-free access, inadequate life-safety features, and no capacity for contemporary infrastructure technology rendered the building obsolete. City council explored a few options–tearing it down and rebuilding on the same site, moving to a new location, and undergoing a major renovation–eventually settling on this last option. Any intervention that would alter the original form and character would be excluded: no new wing or radical reorganization was requested. The architects and contractor reviewed the original design–an exquisitely simple and flexible layout–and set a plan to adapt the building to contemporary standards, keeping its iconic structure intact.

Listed as a heritage building, design and reconstruction had to proceed with extreme care. Of the historical issues involved, replacing the glass and marble cladding proved most challenging. The new curtain wall, with alternating bands of clear vision glass and coloured spandrel glass, was detailed to look identical to the original. At some point, that original glass had been covered in a dark film to reduce heat gain. As contemporary glass coatings eliminate the need for such films, City Hall’s façade looks more transparent, and less somber, than it has in years.

Of the two cladding types, replacing the Georgia marble was the most difficult. In addition to its considerable expense, the stone is soft and porous, ill-suited to a cold climate. Structural testing showed the 65-mm-thick marble slabs were cracking and beginning to fail. Garwood-Jones & Hanham Architects proposed a local limestone, but the cost was still excessive. The city settled on white precast concrete. A faux grid of shallow grooves, cast into the face of the panels, are meant to replicate the joint lines of the original stone cladding. Given that the building is perhaps the key civic marker, concrete panels seem like a nearsighted decision and incongruous with the rest of the design’s devotion to the original. Though the grooves “give the same texture as the original design,” says EllisDon’s project manager Scott Hunter, the precast concrete lacks the character and variety of stone.

Two subtle additions to the exterior were installed on the north side: a barrier-free ramp that circumvents the stairs between the elevated turnabout and the second-floor entry, and a green roof that the councillors’ offices overlook. The turnabout’s handrails–removed and refinished–continue along the length of the ramp, making the addition and the existing seamless.

Renovations to the interior of the first and second floors are so subtle that they look like fresher versions of the originals. Some of the spaces have been rearranged (clerks have moved to the first floor and the mayor’s office moved up to the second); a restaurant is now at the northeast corner of the lobby; and a marble wall, inscribed with a quote in Latin, has been relocated a few metres west. The original terrazzo floor throughout the public space was polished to look new. 

A new translucent glass-walled boardroom has been erected at the western end of the second floor (previously the clerks’ area). Set down in the middle of the wide hall, the room is closed on top, accommodates 30 people, and was the most contentious interior addition. It is visible from the public lobby and is surrounded by the councillors’ offices. A “luminous ceiling,” as described by Ross Hanham, principal at Garwood-Jones & Hanham Architects, composed of backlit translucent panels running the length of the second floor, passes over the boardroom box below. The ceiling was removed during the renovation, the plastic panels were repaired or replaced, and the backlighting was updated. The original customer-service desk, clad in white marble and black granite, has been placed at the east end of the boardroom, reminiscent of the space’s former use. New reception desks, installed throughout the building and clad in the same white marble and black granite, are the only other major interior additions.

A gypsum-board ceiling was installed throughout the building to conceal new mechanical systems, lighting, and information technology. As the original 1960 building was neither barrier-free nor sprinklered, both systems were incorporated into the renovation to conform to current building codes. 

 Heritage guidelines wisely mandated that most of the original interior finishes had to remain. Anything demountable–wood panelling, railings, millwork, murals–was removed, catalogued, stored, and refurbished. Where removal wasn’t possible–terrazzo flooring, stone cladding on structural columns, and mosaic tiles–a layer of plywood protected these surfaces over the course of construction. Even the ceremonial stair in the main entry, with its cherrywood slats and veneer, was encased in rigid insulation and plywood, allowing workers to use it throughout construction.

Many interior elements, though protected by plywood, had additional requirements for moisture and humidity. During construction, the building was stripped to its structure, requiring the contractor to minimize interior exposure to two weeks (new cladding was ready to install as the existing was removed). Given the hazards of such an aggressive renovation, it is a remarkable achievement that the restored building appears as a finer version of its former self.

Efficiency–from an energy and economic perspective–has been increased while the overall image, inside and out, remains unchanged. Now a symbol of Hamilton’s reviving prosperity, the newly restored Hamilton City Hall demonstrates a wise adage: repair what once worked well and leave everything else alone. CA

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

Client City of Hamilton
Architect Team Michelle Austin, Emma Cubitt, Ian Desrosiers, Javier Guardia, Ross Hanham, Dora Lomax, Rez A-Majeed, Amanda Massender, Bob Prince, Greg Sather, Kevin Van Hartingsveldt, Grace Wang, Holland Young.
Structural Schorn C
onsultants Inc.
Mechanical/Electrical Group Eight Engineering Ltd.
Landscape Wendy Shearer Landscape Architect
Heritage +VG Architects
Contractor ABE: EllisDon and Black & McDonald, in joint venture
Area 139,810 ft2
Budget $55.2 M
Completion June 2010