Masons prowl the catwalks in a jungle of scaffolding encasing the 268-foot tall, four-sided clock tower above Old County Hall.
Searching out mortar joints weakened by the fierce weather that occasionally lashes downtown from Lake Erie, the workers are more than a hundred feet higher than Niagara Falls, whose mist they can see from their vantage point over Buffalo.
The metal workers putting the finishing touches on the clock tower’s new roof are even more daring, as they climb beyond the scaffolding on special “chicken ladders” that hook onto the opposite sides of the tapering four-sided roof.
“It’s a beautiful view. You get to see everything. I watch fire trucks as they make their way through the streets,” said Bob Baron of Weaver Metal and Roofing.
“I can see the rain before it comes. I see the rain clouds coming when they’re still miles away,” said Brad Knolhoff, a Weaver foreman.
The men are among approximately a dozen tradesmen restoring the 137-year-old exterior of one of Buffalo’s most historic public buildings, at a time when new structures are starting to rise at Canalside and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
And while the new buildings will tell the story of the city’s rebirth, Old County Hall, a behemoth of massive yet elegant granite blocks at 92 Franklin St. will continue to tell the story of Buffalo’s glorious past.
The nearly $2.5 million restoration began in mid-July and will pause during the winter months, because of the hazards of working up high in ice and snow. Work will resume in the spring and is scheduled to be finished next summer.
“This is a once in a lifetime thing. You won’t see this kind of renovation 25 years from now,” said Jeffrey P. Zack, the county’s senior construction project manager overseeing the work.
Old County Hall officially opened in March 1876 and was known as Buffalo City Hall, though there were county offices and courtrooms inside the building. That may be why it was sometimes known as Buffalo-Erie County Hall.
The three acres of land on which it sits had once been set aside by the Holland Land Company for a cemetery, but the remains of soldiers from the War of 1812 had long ago been dug up and moved to Forest Lawn, according to historical records. So it is not surprising that the building is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Designed by Rochester architect Andrew J. Warner, the building’s construction began in 1872. Granite was quarried at Clark Island, Maine, and shipped here by rail. Block and tackles powered by horses lifted the stone into place against supporting brick walls that were 5 feet thick in places, Zack said.
“You couldn’t build this type of building today,” he said. “It would be too expensive.”
When it was time to place four 16-foot high granite statues, each weighing 16 tons, on the corners of the clock tower, a special derrick crane was constructed, according to Robert Miller, a fourth-generation mason employed by Lupini Construction of Utica, which is handling the masonry renovations.
“The derrick lifted the statues up through the center of the clock tower, and then they were swung out onto the corners of the tower platform atop pedestals that were 8 feet by 8 feet at the base and tapered down to 2 feet by 2 feet,” Miller said. “They said it couldn’t be done, but a man named John Druer developed the special derrick crane.”
The statues were carved by Italian immigrant Giovanni Sala. The northeast corner statue represents justice; the northwest, mechanical arts; the southeast, agriculture; and the southwest, commerce.
Regarded as the center of local government at the time, the building provided the setting for a public wake after President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo.
More than 90,000 people entered the building from the Franklin Street entrance and filed past the slain president’s coffin in the lobby, before exiting onto Delaware Avenue, according to old police records. The exact spot where the president had lain in state has been memorialized with brass markings built into the marble floor and roped off from the public.
In 1932, the city officially took possession of its current headquarters, the 32-story, 398-foot high Buffalo City Hall at Niagara Square. That’s when Erie County bought the Franklin Street building from the city.
The current renovations, Zack said, include repointing of mortar joints, putting on a new zinc-coated steel roof for the tapering top of the clock tower and, where needed, replacing slate roof tiles and copper flashing in the roof’s valleys. The gears in the motor that powers the four-sided clock also will be refurbished.
Work on the highest sections of the clock tower will be completed over the next few weeks and the scaffolding removed.
In the spring, workers will rely on high-reaching bucket lifts, instead of scaffolds, to gain access to mortar joints in the upper levels of the building. Power washing of the exterior walls will also continue.
“Power washing is environmentally friendly and, unlike sand blasting, doesn’t open up pores that would allow moisture in,” Zack said. “The building will look new compared to the dull, dingy gray that has been caused by the grime and dirt.”
Old County Hall’s interior underwent a major renovation that started in 2002 and ended in 2005, he said. Replacement of sidewalks and new landscaping was completed last fall.
The exterior work will allow the building to remain sound for generations to come, Zack said.
“When it is all finished, we’re going to put together a display in the lobby of photographs showing all the work that was done. We’ll even have a piece of the original clock tower roof that was made from lead-coated copper. It has pin holes in it from all the years of weather,” he said. “You look at it and it reminds you of a starry night.”