By Donald Wittkowski
From time to time, buildings, just like people, need some TLC.
Such is the case with Ocean City’s historic City Hall, an architectural gem in the Beaux-Arts Classicism style that is getting some touch-up work on the brick, granite and terra cotta exterior to restore its luster.
“It’s ornate,” Cape May architect Michael Calafati said while marveling over the three-story building. “It’s not Victorian, but it has all the embellishments you would associate with Classical Revival architecture. This is pretty unique.”
Calafati is overseeing Ocean City’s $400,000 restoration of the 104-year-old landmark, whose facade overlooking Asbury Avenue at Ninth Street includes majestic terra cotta columns interspersed by bold, rectangular windows.
The building’s architectural exclamation point is a grand staircase that gracefully flows to the sidewalk and is framed on either side by monumental cast iron light stanchions.
Near the top of the facade are raised terra cotta letters spelling out “CITY HALL.” Just above the letters, at the building’s highest point, is a decorative clock framed in terra cotta laurels.
Underscoring the building’s historic significance, it has been placed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the New Jersey Register of Historic Places.
Without hesitation, Calafati calls it “one of the finest” historic buildings in all of New Jersey. Although it is nowhere near among the oldest government buildings in the state, its construction in 1914 dates back to the start of World War I.
The building’s exterior was last refurbished a little more than 20 years ago. Now, it needs another makeover as part of its ongoing maintenance.
Formally known as the City Hall “exterior masonry stabilization project,” the restoration work includes three main parts of the building: the granite base, the Roman brick walls and the terra cotta. The windows are also being caulked and repainted.
While the project will restore the building’s outer shell, the city is being extraordinarily careful not to tamper with its historic provenance.
“The idea was never to make this building perfect again, because it’s over 100 years of age,” Calafati explained during a tour of City Hall on Wednesday.
Even the two-step process for hiring a contractor to do the work was special, said Joseph Clark, the city’s purchasing manager. First, prospective contractors had to be prequalified to prove they had the expertise to perform such a project. Then, they were allowed to bid on the contract.
Joseph Dugan Inc., a masonry restoration company based in Erdenheim, Pa., won the City Hall contract. The company’s experience in restoring historic buildings includes Resorts Hotel and Casino and the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City, according to its website.
Emphasizing the intricate nature of the City Hall project, Calafati described Joseph Dugan’s workers as highly skilled craftsmen.
“They’re not your run-of-the-mill masons or bricklayers,” he said. “They’re adept at what they do.”
Work began in April and will continue through June, wrapping up by the Fourth of July. Most of the funding for the project comes from the Cape May County Open Space Trust Fund, with Ocean City picking up the rest of the cost, Clark said.
City Hall was designed by noted early 20th Century architect Vivian B. Smith, whose other local masterpieces included the Ocean City Music Pier and the historic Flanders Hotel.
When it was completed in 1914, City Hall’s construction cost was $75,000, the equivalent of about $1.8 million in today’s money, according to a Wikipedia entry on the building’s history.
With periodic maintenance, much like the restoration work being done now, there’s no telling how many more years the stately building will last, Calafati noted.
“Indefinitely,” he said, smiling.