Discussion about the future of the Columbus Government Center continues, highlighted this week by another public tour of the building and a meeting of Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s Commission on New Government and Judicial Building.
The next commission meeting is Thursday Aug. 10, from 2-4 p.m. in the Ground Floor Conference Room at the Government Center, 110 10th St., in Columbus.
A report presented on WRBL-TV Wednesday night touched on several important issues that were revealed at this week’s open house, including serious decay that is affecting the building’s heating and cooling systems. “They’re deteriorating,” facilities maintenance supervisor Jerry Gowen told reporter Ashley Garrett.
These options are under consideration:
- Completely gut and renovate the current building.
- Tear down the building completely and rebuild from the ground up.
- Build two completely separate buildings, a government center and a judicial center
The mayor’s commission was appointed last February. Membership includes:
Angelica Alexander, Gary Allen, Brian Anderson, Robert Anderson, Elizabeth Barker, Pat Biegler, Richard Bishop, Ronzell Bucker, Norman Easterbrook, Jimmy Elder, Kenneth Followill, Walker Garrett, Lisa Goodwin, Ann Hardman, Melody Hayes, David Helmick, Skip Henderson, Pam Hodge, John Hudgison, Isaiah Hugley, Mike Massey, Gil McBride, Donna Newman, Joy Norman, Paul Pierce, Evelyn Turner Pugh, Ben Richardson, Donna Tompkins, Todd Turner and Kristen Miller Zohn.
A summary of the commission’s activities since it was organized in early 2017 can be found on the Columbus Consolidated Government’s Website. Click on Commission on the New Government & Judicial Building.
Two interesting documents have emerged:
An interview conducted with Ed Neal, the lead architect when the building was first conceived
A position statement issued by Historic Columbus.
Those documents follow:
Columbus City Commissioners selected the local architectural firm of Biggers, Scarbrough and Neal to build the new government headquarters. James J.W. Biggers was the senior partner and Ed Neal emerged as the lead architect on the project. Muscogee County Commissioners appointed E. Oren Smith. The following is excerpted from an interview with Neal in May 2017.
There was another building on that site. It was built in 1950s, I believe, and it was on the northeast corner of that block there and it was a two-story orange brick building and we were in charge to try to work with that.
That’s kind of what set the theme with those two heavy traffic areas. There would be heavy traffic for building inspection, drivers licensing and other things that they would be heavy traffic areas and so that kind of dictated that and of course the square footage necessary would dictate a high rise building and we did conceptual drawings of what we proposed, which is what you see today really.
We presented them (conceptual drawings) at the city commissioners meeting and they were so excited. It was very wonderful to have that response. I went all over town selling this thing. I spoke at Columbus High School and public forums.
Architectural Style and Facts
I honestly can’t recall what dictated those columns and exaggerated column caps. Parking of course was a big consideration and we got at least three levels of parking underneath that plaza level now and as far as the design “curtain wall,” that’s what we call that glass wall, you’re probably familiar with it. It was very much in the vogue and continues to be.
A high-rise masonry building was just out of the question I guess, we never really investigated that, we looked at the curtain wall. Let’s back up a minute how did I get involved, I don’t know how I became the chief one. We were all working on it but I did all of the interviews with the departmental heads and went back and we, the firm, did preliminary sketches of what we thought they wanted and we’d take it back and they liked it.
We got them to sign a release paper and we revised it a number of times, each departmental head signed off on it. I think it was on a module and everything was laid out on that plan.
I didn’t know that it was the longest cantilever built at the time, but you know that contractor told that to me at some point during the construction. The plaza level concrete around the perimeter of the high rise was the longest cantilever in America is what he said so I took him for his word.
… That amazed me. We never had to deviate from the conceptual drawings. Another thing, they stayed in that courthouse while we built the high rise. It was in front of the tower.
There were a lot of things we had to overcome. The block, as I already called it, there was something like more land on one side and I wanted the sidewalks all along the building to be the same and there was something I had to do with that before the governmental authorities in that respect. In the overall scheme of the thing, I didn’t want this much room on one side of the building and this much on the other.
Pleasing the Client
The supreme goal of most architecture and certainly for me is to please the client. There’s so much about that building that I think a lot of people don’t know. They had a helo-pad on the roof so that visiting dignitaries could land (a helicopter) up there. I think that’s probably been used twice. And then that reflecting pool had water shooting up and then we had it so that if the wind was blowing it would work.
We tried to take in every consideration; I remember if you were sitting in the high rise, what were those two low buildings going to look like? So I put a design to the roof in each of those buildings I don’t know whether that’s been maintained or not.
It was a built up roof with gravel and I think we had brick and white marble in a pattern. Structurally every column, and there are few on that high rise building, has a cap on about 5 feet in diameter drilled to bedrock and I think they must be 100 feet deep down in the ground.
It’d be an enormous job to take to that building down.
Source of Materials
They were pre-cast from a company in Opelika and brought here by truck. The ones on the tower were in a few pieces, probably the capitals were in one piece, but I know the ones on the two story buildings were in one piece.
Since that time, Ron Murray was hired to do something on that north steps. They put a fountain or something on it. It was a long flight of steps before you got up to the plaza level and then the reflecting pool was in the plaza. And that’s another thing we had to work out floors to come out on that level and the parking level and I’m really proud of what we did. I never had done a high-rise building before.
The worst thing they’ve done to that building to me is putting that stuff on the windows that gives it that horizontal look, I did everything I could to make it look vertical. I wanted it to be uplifting. I don’t know when that was done, maybe several years after. It suddenly appeared.
You don’t know how much time I spent (on) the glass between the windows and the glass between the floors. I was so sensitive to the fact that it would all look the same. It was all to be a dark grey with the white columns. The tint on the windows breaks the building … it really does … and my recommendation is that they get somebody to scrape that stuff off as quickly as they can.
Another thing that we did was light the building and the first time I saw that at night it was just wonderful to me. I don’t even think they turn the lights on anymore. These are floodlights and they were recessed in that there was so much that had never been done in Columbus. These things were almost flushed with the plaza level. The first time we went over to Phenix City and they turned them on.
We envisioned people having lunch down there on that plaza level and then the main plaza level under the tower we had designed custom carpets depicting the Chattahoochee and the Barcelona chairs. We had four on either side sitting on these custom carpets, it was a knock out.
We did have a budget for this building and I saw right off that it wasn’t going to be enough money. And that’s maybe one or two things that I regret — that we didn’t put a sprinkler system in the building.
We met all Code. They would not have ever issued any building permit if it had violated any Codes. It makes me mad that they have written that the stairs don’t meet the Code. We met every Code, and dotted every I and crossed every T on it when that job was done.
Now if there were some changes, I don’t know. I also regret the elevator situation … I wasn’t aware of that until years later.
The city leaders wanted something that showed progress and to celebrate the new consolidation. So, we conceived it as you see it that way today.
Historic Columbus holds the position that the Columbus Government Center has architectural, cultural, and economic value, and the buildings should not be demolished.
All options should be explored to find a solution for the Government Center site — whether it’s governmental in whole or in part, or entirely for an adaptive re-use. The existing buildings have the capacity to serve multiple uses, not solely governmental. If the property were sold by the CCG to a for-profit entity, federal rehabilitation tax credits, state rehab tax credits, and the state property tax freeze would all be available for use in the renovation of the site.
Even though the Government Center has not yet hit the 50-year mark, there is a strong case for an early listing on the National Register for its architectural and cultural significance, as well as being a local iconic structure.
The Government Center was simply described by lead architect, Ed Neal, as “Modern.” Its architectural style is now formally known as Neo-Formalism. This style contains elements of two common mid-century styles (International and Brutalism) and blends them with classical materials (columns) and forms (symmetrical).
Brutalist buildings have a look of weight and massiveness that immediately sets them apart from those of other predominantly rectangular, flat-roofed styles. Concrete is the favorite material; it is always left exposed and often rough-surfaced. This really describes the bottom of the tower and the large planters around the wings and the stairways.
The International Style is characterized by a lack of ornament. Flat roofs, smooth and uniform wall surfaces, windows that look as though they are a continuation of the surface rather than holes in the wall. Skeleton construction of steel or reinforced concrete is typical. The use of cantilevers is also popular both for carrying upper floors outside the supporting columns and for balconies and other projecting features.
This element is really evident in the plaza (level) — which was designed to be completely open with the walls of windows connecting you to the outside. This is how the plaza level should feel — very open — not being blocked by curtains on the windows.
It is also important to note that at the time, the tower was designed with the longest cantilever built in the United States.
Columbus was the last planned city of the 13 original colonies. From the earliest map of Columbus in 1828, the new city’s courthouse is located on the current block. The earliest courthouse was replaced in 1838 for a Greek Revival structure. In the 1890s, it was demolished and replaced by a Neoclassical building. By the 1960s, the city had outgrown that property and was ready to plan for a much larger and more modern complex to house the new consolidated county and city government needs.
Even as the building changed over the years, there were three continuous elements — the city’s original grid pattern, the public use of the block, and the incorporation of public open space.
From the beginning of its planning stages, the Government Center complex was meant to represent a modern and forward thinking city. It achieved that through its architecture and its height. It has become an iconic image for Columbus and that has value.
Symbolism aside, there is practical value that can be further extracted from the site when the building’s preservation and adaptive reuse becomes a focus. Positively, the site is an entire city block in the downtown core. It has sub-surface parking, commanding views of the city, and opportunities for new construction that could better engage the street and provide a transition from the mid-century to the older buildings that surround it. Such new construction would fill the short-term need during the tower renovation, accommodate future growth when needed, and provide income to the city when leased in the interim.
Should the city wish to partner with a third party developer and lease space back, the site would be open to the full raft of historic tax credits and incentives. This would allow the city to adjust its space needs under this type of occupancy as any lease renews and would limit its need for capital repairs and improvements going forward.
Most importantly, the private entity would be responsible for funding such a project removing the need for a Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
Even if the above was not compelling enough to solicit adaptive reuse planning, the saving of $3 million associated with the demolition costs and filling space within the landfill to accommodate the materials should make a full evaluation of alternatives a high priority.
The Case for Mid-Century:
It’s common to note the failings of the past. It’s less easy for us to imagine how future generations might find us and our style wanting. The question is — are we on the edge of another era of destruction of our architectural and cultural heritage, specifically of our mid-century modern buildings?
Mid-century modern architecture is now in the same danger zone chronologically that late 19th-century buildings were in during the urban renewal period of the 1960s. These buildings are old enough to be considered dated, but not old enough to be considered “historic.” The exact same was true of all those buildings that were torn down in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and are now are so lamented.
Those buildings weren’t a hundred years old back then. They were considered functionally obsolete and they were in many cases in need of significant investment to upgrade. They were expensive to operate. They were no longer architecturally in fashion and there was a large supply of them, most of them “run of the mill” structures of little to no standalone significance. For every Penn Station that was demolished, there were dozens of unremembered buildings being razed.
It is easy to see how, in almost every individual case, the mid-century building in question will be considered expendable due to its lack of individual significance. And then one day we’ll wake up to find they are largely gone or mauled beyond recognition.
Today, it is difficult for us to appreciate and see the significance of these structures. We’re prisoners of our own age. It is important, vital, for us to be able to step outside ourselves, to see us as people 50 or 100 years from now might. What might they value in buildings? Might they not see the mid-century period as historic in its own right — just as we see Craftsman Bungalows, Colonial Revivals, or Spanish Eclectic. It seems possible.
Preservation is all about people and the places they care about. It was a handful of passionate supporters who started by saving the Springer Theater, founding Historic Columbus, and renovating houses downtown one by one.
It will also be the same for mid-century.