Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 11:00 am
City Hall, one of Milwaukee’s most iconic buildings, doesn’t look its best right now. Encased by scaffolding, some of its most decorative elements have been removed, exposing the building’s 111-year-old steel skeleton that formerly supported copper and terra cotta features and roofing.
However, that’s about to change. In March, crews from Milwaukee-based FJA Christiansen Roofing Co. Inc., who removed much of the copper domes, roofing and paneling, will start putting pieces back onto City Hall.
Instead of the patina of the old roof and domes, the new copper pieces will exude a gold shine for their first dozen years, said Robert McNamara, president of FJA Christiansen. The faded look will appear gradually after that time, he said.
FJA Christiansen is a subcontractor on the City Hall project, working under direction of J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., the general contractor for the three-year, $70 million renovation. McNamara declined to give FJA Christiansen’s price tag for its work, but he said it was worth more than $5 million.
Most of the company’s work is on City Hall’s south tower between the 10th floor and its 395-foot high spire, McNamara said. FJA Christiansen is also working to restore the north tower, but that work is less intricate as the south tower, he said.
Restoration work similar to the City Hall project is one of FJA Christiansen’s core competencies, McNamara said. The company recently completed a new copper roof at Holy Hill. Although these projects can be difficult, the intricacies make the work both interesting and worthwhile, McNamara said.
“These only come along once in a while,” he said. “This is unusual because the copper work is so intricate.”
However, the high profile and legacy effect of such projects makes the extra work worth it, he said.
All of City Hall’s copper panels, domes and decorative pieces will be re-created for the restoration, said Todd Orvedahl, vice president of FJA Christiansen who is overseeing the project. Many of the copper pieces had extensive wearing and couldn’t be re-used even if city officials wanted to.
“Some of the metal was really thin,” Orvedahl said. “When you held it up to the light, you could see pin holes through it.”
FJA Christiansen is making most of the copper domes, panels and ridges, Orvedahl said. The intricate stamped copper pieces are being made by a company named Heather & Little Ltd., based in Toronto.
When those pieces are completed, crews will begin installing them at City Hall. Work will begin on the drum of the tower’s upper dome, Orvedahl said, and crews will then move to its upper portions.
Weather permitting, FJA Christiansen hopes its work at City Hall will be completed by the end of this year, Orvedahl said. The total project is scheduled for completion by December 2008.
FJA Christiansen usually has between six and 10 employees working at City Hall, because there are many other contractors working at the site and scaffolding has limits to the number of people it can support.
While FJA Christiansen’s crews are accustomed to dealing with heights, City Hall’s location near both the lakefront, the Milwaukee River and North Water Street gives it prime exposure to high winds, giving the project another layer of difficulty.
“It’s difficult because you’re dealing with heights and the safety requirements,” Orvedahl said. “The wind is the biggest deal.”
Complicating matters further was the need to treat every piece removed with care. Those pieces were needed to make patterns and molds to make the new roof.
“We’re replicating (City Hall) to its original condition,” Orvedahl said. “We want it to look like it was (when it was built) and we have to take everything apart to make patterns. Putting it back together shouldn’t be that hard.”
Most of the copper taken off of City Hall will be recycled, except for a few pieces. Those will be returned to the city for a display inside City Hall, Orvedahl said.
FJA Christiansen usually takes part in commercial projects, but it has also worked on restorations of several other high-profile public buildings including Holy Hill, the Bascilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee, the Federal Courthouse in downtown Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee County Courthouse. All of those buildings included significant copper roofing work, Orvedahl said.
“Our company has been around 128 years, and to drive around the city and see the buildings we did, it’s neat to be part of that kind of history,” he said.
There can be high expectations with historic renovations, but Orvedahl and McNamara said proper planning can make meeting those expectations possible.
“We take a team approach (to these projects),” Orvedahl said. “We had hundreds of hours of meetings on this before we even bid it. We knew how we were going to build it before we even bid the job.”