City Hall’s recurring marble problem a sign of age and times

By Published: January 28, 2019 2:46 PM CT
<strong>Alison Archibal, Holly Enlow, Sarah Girdner and Ashely Evans walk past Memphis City Hall Friday, Jan. 18, on their way back from lunch. The city has had to install fencing around the fa&ccedil;ade to protect passers-by from falling material.</strong> (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Alison Archibal, Holly Enlow, Sarah Girdner and Ashely Evans walk past Memphis City Hall Friday, Jan. 18, on their way back from lunch. The city has had to install fencing around the façade to protect passers-by from falling material. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

More than 50 years since City Hall opened for business, the marble slabs that define its seven-story exterior are again a problem.

Debris from the slabs, spotted around the building shortly after the new year began, prompted the city administration to put a chain link fence around the Main Street Mall landmark.

And Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says, depending on how much it will cost to fix the marble, the exterior of City Hall could change.

“We’re trying to cost it out,” Strickland said recently. “Is there a cost-effective way to affix the marble again? Or is it just cheaper to take all the marble off and put some other kind of siding or paint in its place? All of the options are being studied.”

The marble problem is just one sign of the challenges facing the aging structure that houses city government.

The City Hall building was completed in 1966 at a cost to the city of $7.8 million, including the marble slabs on all sides of the building.

There was trouble almost from the start.

LASA per L’Industria del Marmo Societa per Azioni, the Italian company that supplied the marble, sued Alexander Marble and Tile Co. a few years into City Hall’s life, claiming Alexander didn’t pay in full for the marble. Alexander, as subcontractor to general contractor Southern Builders, responded.

That prompted a set of counterclaims and cross claims among the three, alleging there were problems with the marble and its installation.

The case went to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in 1969 the counterclaims and cross claims could be joined to the original lawsuit since they arose from the same transaction.

The case is cited in legal textbooks on civil procedure.

In the spring of 1984, the city spent $3.5 million to fix marble panels that has bowed and slipped out of place. Three years later, there were renewed complaints.

The city added marble panels to the building’s exterior in early 1998 as then-Mayor Willie Herenton moved the mayor’s office from the second floor to the seventh floor, which had been a storage area but became a penthouse.

Other features in City Hall have less visible problems. Late last year, the skylights over city council chambers sprung a small leak, moving the council session that Tuesday to the newly overhauled council committee room on the fifth floor of the building.

The parking garage has some notoriously tight turns, with walls that show evidence of turns that weren’t quite tight enough.

“There’s just a lot of work that needs to be done,” Strickland said of the building in general. “We literally see the results of that now with pieces of marble falling off the sides.”

There have also been numerous adaptations of different spaces within its walls over the past half century. As council members gathered in the Hall of Mayors Tuesday afternoon for a new group photo to include its three new members, a plastic tarp was wrapped around the metal louvers on the second floor overlook into the hall. It is preparation for some more changes to what was the mayor’s office several changes ago.

While the council offices have always been on the fifth floor, that configuration has changed over the decades. The committee room once featured a view of Mud Island River Park that was usually ignored when council members would debate what should be done with the park. Sometimes they would discuss having a tour of the park to see its landscape for themselves.

The committee room then switched to the other side of the hallway with no outside view and a rostrum instead of a committee table. The updated committee room that debuted last year retains a small narrow room where television cameras on tripods are confined.

The ban on tripods in committee sessions was a result of council members frequently being hemmed in at the committee table by the tripods during the more newsworthy debates around the old committee table.

The second-floor press room, whose door still bears the words “television and press room,” is now more of a storage area for the paraphernalia and files of past council members.

And City Hall oozes reminders of the past, from inscriptions in its exterior marble noting everything from the commission form of city government (which was in its last two years when the building opened) to the portraits of past mayors that line the interior walls of the Hall of Mayors – from Marcus Winchester to A C Wharton with a few notable gaps. There’s also the occasional debates about whether interim mayors should have their portraits included. And if so, where the additional wall space would be found.

The portraits are in chronological order with one notable exception – Henry Loeb.

Loeb, who was the mayor during the 1968 sanitation workers strike, is with some of the 19th century mayors across the room from the short row starting with his successor Wyeth Chandler.

Chandler, Dick Hackett, Willie Herenton and A C Wharton are on the wall that is usually the backdrop for press conferences in the hall, usually hosted by the present mayor.

While Loeb is out of order and out of the frame for press conferences, there are constant reminders of City Hall’s prominent place in the events of the 1968 sanitation workers strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis.

The council chambers in the lobby, the scene of some of the most dramatic confrontations between the city’s elected leaders and the strikers, still looks a lot like it did 51 years ago.

Strickland estimates the building has “millions of dollars of deferred maintenance” but isn’t a priority.

“We don’t have millions of dollars to put into it. We’re just not going to do the study,” he said. “We have fire stations where fire fighters have to live. And they are in pretty bad condition. I’d rather focus on those things, or buildings like city libraries and community centers where the public interacts, before I do City Hall.”

City Hall was one of four government office buildings built in the mid-1960s on the block of North Main Street between Poplar and Adams Avenue and called Civic Center Plaza.

Unlike the county, state and federal government office buildings, City Hall is shorter, broader and distinctly different with its white marble exterior.

The Memphis Police Department and parts of several other city divisions moved into what had been the Donnelly J. Hill State Office Building at 170 N. Main St. two years ago after the city renovated the building.

The plaza could undergo a major change with the deal for a second convention center hotel due to close by the spring. The site is the open part of the mall directly across from the entrance to City Hall.

When Strickland was asked in September about what might happen to City Hall if the new hotel, along with office and residential towers and other mixed uses, triggers other changes in the plaza landscape, he replied: “City Hall does not need to have river views.”


Memphis City Hall Jim Strickland Memphis City Council
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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