WINCHESTER — Rouss City Hall is showing its age, and the people who work there wouldn’t have it any other way.
A $4.2 million restoration of the 119-year-old building that began in September 2017 has revealed long-hidden features that, for one reason or another, were concealed during previous renovation projects in the 1950s and 1986.
“As we started finding things, we started incorporating our design around them,” Winchester Facilities Maintenance and Parking Division Manager Corey MacKnight said this week.
That slowed the project from one that was expected to be finished in a year to an undertaking that has stretched on for nearly two.
Today, after spending $3,935,866.97 on materials and labor, the renovations are 97% complete. All that is left is the installation of new storm windows and heating and cooling equipment, which have been purchased.
“I think it turned out better than we ever thought it would,” MacKnight said. “It’s a beautiful building that we were able to give new life by bringing back its old life.”
This part of City Hall used to include a police station with a jail. Officers held criminal suspects on the ground floor until their hearings were held in a second-floor courtroom that is now City Council chambers.
Today, the first floor is home to city government’s Human Resources Department. Steel support beams along the ceiling still display information about who made them and where they were sent in 1900: “Merritt and Co., c/o Charles H. Miller, Winchester, Va.”
The new floor plan here is somewhat odd, and that’s due to some surprising discoveries that were made in the early days of the renovation project. Workers found a pair of ornate columns, one of which no one knew was there, and an arched brick doorway that had been covered up and forgotten.
“We reworked the entire HR office to incorporate that double doorway entrance because it still has the wood structure above the top,” MacKnight said. “It worked out perfect.”
City Hall’s second floor has two levels, an upper and a lower. The upper level, on the south end of the building, includes an information desk and offices for the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue. The lower level, on the north end, features City Council chambers and the mayor’s office.
Not much has been done on the upper level. That’s because the treasurer’s and commissioner’s offices are slated to move to the city-owned Creamery Building at 21-25 S. Kent St. following a $2 million renovation of that structure. Until that occurs, MacKnight said they’re holding off on further changes to this section of City Hall.
New ceramic flooring has been installed on the lower level at the building’s main front and rear entrances.
As MacKnight swiped a keycard to open the door to the mayor’s office, he said, “This is one of my favorite rooms because of how beautiful it turned out.”
Originally, this space accommodated two offices — one for the mayor and the other for Winchester’s communications director. MacKnight said the communications office was moved to the fourth floor, and a brick wall that had divided the rooms was carefully removed to create a single large space.
During this process, workers uncovered the office’s original hardwood flooring, which they cleaned and restored.
The extra space in the mayor’s office now accommodates a conference table where City Council meets in private during executive sessions. It’s a convenient location because council chambers are right on the other side of the door.
The appearance of chambers has not changed dramatically, but it includes new carpeting, refinished wood, freshly painted walls, storm windows and a revamped heating and cooling system. In a few weeks, MacKnight said, the audio and video equipment in the spectator gallery will be moved into a pair of small rooms near City Hall’s front entrance.
This may be the most transformed part of the building.
The ceramic tile used on the second floor’s lower level has been installed here as well, in a new reception area with large arched windows that were partially covered during the 1986 renovation.
An original wooden staircase leading to the fourth floor was also exposed and restored. Large sheets of plexiglass were installed next to the stairs to make sure no one tumbles over the hand rails.
In its early years, Rouss City Hall included a theater for live performances. The theater’s third-floor ticket booth is still there, but has been significantly revamped to create the Loudoun Conference Room.
A set of glass doors that once led into the theater now opens to the Public Services Department, a large space on the north end of the building where citizens can meet with planning, zoning, engineering, utility and building officials.
“It’s kind of a one-stop shop,” MacKnight said. “This is where you get all your building permits, requests for street closures, stuff like that.”
Another pair of arched windows have been exposed on the north wall, as well as more of the building’s original brick.
Unfortunately, workers also uncovered some original amenities here that could not be salvaged.
“When they started removing the plaster off these walls, they found some of the old gas light fixtures and lines,” MacKnight said. “They had been crushed into the wall with a hammer and plastered over.”
This is where you’ll find offices for the city manager and Finance and Information Technology departments. It’s also home to the Exhibit Hall, the former theater’s rotunda that was later converted into a large meeting room
During the renovation project, the Exhibit Hall was set up to provide temporary offices for displaced personnel. MacKnight called it “the cubicle farm.”
There used to be a Masonic lodge on the fourth floor, and a piece of plaster fresco from the original wall was preserved and is now displayed near the former lodge’s entrance.
A portion of a brick wall on the south side of the building juts out to allow more space for a conference room in the city manager’s suite. MacKnight said the bricks in the extended section are the ones salvaged from the wall removed from the mayor’s office.
“They did a great job,” he said about the restoration crews from Lantz Construction Co. of Winchester.
Behind the Exhibit Hall, on the north end of the building, is the city’s Information Technology Department, headed up by Innovation and Information Services Director Tyler Schenck. Modern computers provide a striking contrast to the architectural features preserved from the building’s initial construction in 1900.
It’s a big step up from the temporary digs Schenck and his staff had a few months ago.
“We were in the Exhibit Hall,” he said.
“Yeah, they participated in farm life for a little while,” MacKnight joked.
You have to climb to the very top of the 75-foot building to see the 119-year-old building’s final tie to the past.
MacKnight said the clock in City Hall’s rooftop tower was well-maintained for a century, but officials eventually stopped having its mechanics inspected on a regular basis.
“About eight or nine years ago, we had an issue with the clock,” MacKnight said. “I went up to the clock tower to see if I could fix it, and I couldn’t.”
He found a very old sticker on the clock’s motor that had a phone number for Rodgers Clock Service in Harrisburg, Pa. MacKnight said he took a chance and dialed the number and was surprised when someone answered.
“He said, ‘My dad used to take care of that tower,’” MacKnight said.
The man on the phone was Bob Rodgers Jr. His father had passed away and left the clock repair business to his son.
Rodgers drove to Winchester and climbed the clock tower with MacKnight.
“When we got up there, he had to pause because he got choked up,” MacKnight said. “From 1941 until the 1980s, his dad hand wrote on the wall every time he was here and what service he performed. He hadn’t see his dad’s handwriting in years.”