The rotunda’s revival: Atascadero Administration Building renovations loom

As city leaders stepped over fallen slabs of plaster strewn on a shifted floor of Atascadero’s historic Administration Building, they peered passed the mounds of debris to envision the reopening of City Hall they hope will soon take place.

A long-awaited, three-phase construction project to fix the 1918 landmark begins in September and is slated to end by the city’s centennial in 2013.

“I’m one of those people who loves the history of that building and can’t wait to get back in,” said Rachelle Rickard, the city’s administrative services director. She recalls how she dived beneath a meeting table in a fourth-floor conference room as the building shook hard during the San Simeon Earthquake on Dec. 22, 2003.

Today, a strand of Christmas lights hangs unevenly around the building’s busted brick rotunda. The structure has been yellow-tagged since the day of the quake. Few people have been let inside since.

Employees, led by Rickard, have been lobbying the federal government for the money to fix it.

“We’ve been working on it all this time, but people haven’t seen that real outward progress,” Rickard said. “Now with this construction work, everyone else will be able to see it, too.”

After two appeals, the city maintains that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should pay for the costs of bringing the building up to code as well as replacing the heating and cooling system that deteriorated after almost seven years of not being maintained.

FEMA has denied those requests because such damages aren’t a visible result of a quake, said Stephanie Kingsnorth, principal architect with Pfeiffer Partners Architects Inc. in Los Angeles, which was chosen because of its previous work on historic building projects such as the Boston Public Library. The federal agency bases its funding commitments off damage people can see, Kingsnorth said.

After the quake, the city wrapped the broken rotunda in waterproof paper, but it didn’t remain airtight over time. Rainwater seeped in. Pigeon stoops developed in the gaps.

The results — mold and thick piles of bird guano —are among the city’s other sticking points with FEMA.

“That’s what’s frustrating,” Assistant City Manager Jim Lewis said. “There are damages that are in direct correlation to the earthquake, and we’re having to argue that.”

Rebuild and reuse

Work to restore the building is estimated at $43 million. FEMA has agreed to pay $16 million, but the city is still lobbying to bring it up to $28 million. The city will front the remaining money with a bond for up to $18 million. FEMA officials could not be reached for comment.

Of the three complex work phases, the first will be most noticeable to the community, Kingsnorth said.

“Everything above the mezzanine in the top rotunda is coming off,” she said. Scaffolding will surround its exterior as workers carefully remove the dome and the surrounding rooms on the fourth floor.

Unlike the rest of the building, which is made of steel and concrete, the brick-only upper rotunda needs to be reinforced. Chain-link was added in the interim so that additional bricks don’t come crashing down.

On a recent afternoon, Kingsnorth held up one of the 11-shades of fallen brick made of Salinas River clay.

“We’re going to reuse as many of these as we can,” she said.

Then, workers will brace the previously unreinforced areas and rebuild using the historic materials.

The deconstruction phase will be key for convincing FEMA of the damages, Kingsnorth said.

“When we start peeling layers off the building, we’ll get a closer look at the actual damage an earthquake causes,” she added.

Piece by piece, crews plan to remove the heating and cooling system from the ceilings and have FEMA officials review the corroded and deteriorated parts.

“So then they can say: ‘Yes, visually I can see it now,’ ” and they can quantify the damage payment, Kingsnorth said.

In a later phase, crews will also add an extra layer of concrete to the interior perimeter of the first floor for future strengthening. It will expand each wall by 10 inches, but it has to be done, she said.

Some history restored

Officials wish they could add more historic detail, such as the chair rail molding the rooms once had, but there’s no money for that, Kingsnorth said.

“People think we’re building the Taj Mahal,” Lewis said of the roughly 65,000-square-foot building. “I’ve heard marble, wood floors and brass. But it’s going to be carpet, basic paint and blinds.”

City officials, however, are still thinking of the small touches.

The California Cultural and Historic Endowment has pledged $2 million to restore original elements phased out over the years. Terra-cotta railings will be rebuilt around the top rotunda, and the building’s original framed doors will be added back with look-alikes.

A jarring crack through large decorative columns on the inside of the lower rotunda will also remain, Kingsnorth said.

“We’re not going shift them back into place,” she said of the nonstructural pieces, “That way, people can say, ‘Hey, something happened here.’ And that can forever be the record of the building.”

Reach Tonya Strickland at 781-7858. Stay updated by following @tstrickland on Twitter.

Construction: What to expect

Phase 1: Deconstruction

Removing and salvaging the original bricks to re-use. Touted as the most visual phase of the construction work.

Phase 2: FEMA repairs

Adding structural steel, rebuilding the masonry walls, recreating the interior finishes, re-roofing the rotunda and adding concrete to the inside face of the perimeter walls.

Phase 3: Code upgrades

Building-code upgrades and historic work. Runs concurrently with Phase 2.

Atascadero’s historic Administration Building: Some key facts

It served as a college dorm for three different private schools after Atascadero founder E.G. Lewis lost the building because of financial troubles. One college housed baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who served as a counselor in the 1940s.

It had a shooting range in its basement for the Sheriff’s Department in the 1960s.

A motion picture company held movie classes there in its early days.

It housed the first location of the Bank of Atascadero, Chamber of Commerce offices and a post office in the early 1900s.

It was inspired by the 1904 World’s Fair.

The top rotunda, most recently the City Council chambers, was first used as a public library with book stacks on the surrounding mezzanine and reading desks below.

After serving as the campus for three different private schools, San Luis Obispo County brought the building back into public ownership for $70,000 in the early 1950s.

It became the Veterans Memorial Building when the county bought it. Its third floor was used for veterans services.

It was home to the Atascadero Historical Society, which was on its ground floor from 1967 to 2003.

It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 as the Atascadero Colony Administration Building.

It became designated as California Landmark No. 958 in 1984.

— Local historian Lon Allan and the city of Atascadero

The mystery of the building’s original ink drawings

The city and its architects are looking for the original ink architectural drawings of the Administration Building from the early 1900s. San Luis Obispo County’s offices were last known to have them in the 1970s, Los Angeles architect Stephanie Kingsnorth said. After an intensive search, officials think someone must have filed them away in a storage area or attic. Anyone with information on the drawings can contact Kingsnorth at skingsnorth@pfeifferpartners.com.

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