MORGANTOWN — Standing outside 389 Spruce Street, it’s hard to imagine the average day behind those walls back when the building was new.
We know Morgantown City Hall as the seat of city government.
But in 1924, the same building with the same dimensions, constructed out of the same sandstone hewn to stack New York’s Empire State Building, was home to everything bearing the city’s name.
Firefighters in bunk rooms slept just above their trucks, parked behind the large bay doors facing Spruce Street.
The Morgantown Police Department brought offenders back to separate men’s and women’s jail cells to await their day in court — which, depending on the charge, may very well occur right down the hall.
It held its own laboratory and dark room.
And then, just as now, it contained the chamber in which nearly a century of city laws have been proposed, debated and adopted.
The historic building turns 100 years old in 2024.
Assistant City Manager Emily Muzzarelli said it looks as if the $3.3 million overhaul that’s had the building off limits to both city personnel and the public since mid-2022 will likely wrap up right around the time the calendar turns over.
“We’re getting close,” she said during a recent tour of the building.
Embracing the building’s history while making it more functional for both the community and city business has been the focus of the work.
For example, all the original windows across the building’s front facade have been restored and returned. Once complete, the structure will again feature the large bay doors that once provided access to fire vehicles.
But just beyond each of those faux doors, lofty ceilings and spacious lobbies will greet visitors calling on the finance and code enforcement departments.
The public will be able to access those lobbies as well as council chambers at the top of the central staircase. Standing at the top of the stairs facing the meeting chamber, a new elevator will be on your right and a new public restroom will be on your left.
Anything beyond those areas will require a pass card.
Gone are the days of large, noisy crowds congregating in the small landing outside council chambers. A new executive meeting area has been opened up behind the chamber, meaning the main meeting room will be open for the public to enter while council conducts pre-meeting interviews or executive sessions in a separate space.
Muzzarelli said the city hall experience will certainly be improved for those of us visiting occasionally, but it’ll be completely transformed for the individuals in the building every day.
Number one, it’ll be far more secure.
“Before, anybody could walk in here and really roam anywhere they wanted all through the building,” Engineering and Public Works Director Damien Davis said. “And that happened pretty regularly, especially in the colder months.”
Number two, there will be actual control over the building’s internal temperature.
Some of the old windows were permanently sealed shut. Some could no longer shut completely. Many had window air conditioners perched in them and they all had to be sealed with plastic once winter set in.
Muzzarelli said about half the project’s budget went to fixing the front windows, replacing the rest and tearing out the old boiler and cracked cast iron pipes in favor of a new HVAC system.
Much of the ductwork for that system as well as the building’s electrical and IT connections will travel through the internal tower where fire hoses once hung.
Number three, there will be space.
For the first time, much of the building’s 7,700-square-foot basement will be sealed and conditioned, meaning it will be suitable for offices as well as storage.
“We’ve never had conditioned space in the basement. It was always just moldy, musty space with old, asbestos piping. That’s all gone,” Davis said, explaining that the basement’s condition meant everything that should be tucked away in storage was taking up valuable space in and around the offices upstairs.
“We really were shoving people and stuff every which way,” Muzzarelli added.
The finished basement will also include a secure employee gym.
“These improvements are not only fixing and updating the building, but this money is also improving the working conditions and the quality of life for city employees,” Davis said. “The other money went into things we needed — the roof, the sidewalk, the facade. We needed those things, but that did nothing for the employee experience. They were still working in an old building with mold and asbestos. This money is making dramatic changes to the building.”
Adding to the spaciousness is the fact that not everybody is coming back.
Muzzarelli explained that when city hall reopens, her office will be located there, as will development services, finance, engineering, the city clerk’s office, the GIS coordinator, the special projects coordinator, two of the city’s fire marshals and the city ambassadors.
City Manager Kim Haws will remain across the street, at 430 Spruce St., along with the city’s human resources, communications and IT departments. There will also be office space in that building available to members of city council.
The city hall rehab project follows more than $1 million in exterior work over the last five years focusing on restoring the building’s facade and shoring up the basement space that extends below the Spruce Street sidewalk.
Even so, Davis said the cost put into the old building is a fraction of what it would take the city to build new.
Besides, Muzzarelli said, you can’t really put a price on your past.
She’s built a small collection of items found as crews began tearing back the layers of progress — old cigarette packs, a giant can of olive oil, canned spaghetti, liquor bottles, old magazines and a Bible.
The city intends to place a time capsule behind a wall somewhere before the work is complete.
Maybe someone will find it there 100 years from now.
“When you walk through, you can see all the time and effort that’s been put into this project. There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into preserving the windows and protecting the marble and all the old wood,” Muzzarelli said. “This is Morgantown’s history. To save that history, I think that’s just so important.”