City moves forward with pair of renovation projects

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The City is moving forward with plans to renovate the Fowler Building downtown at a projected cost of $601,388. (Mike Eddleman Photo)

By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The City Council voted unanimously Monday to move ahead with detailed planning for the renovation of two downtown structures, one a former residence to be converted into city offices, and the other, the historic Fowler Building.

The Fowler Building stirred the emotion in the room as architect Don Eckols described the initial plan for the historic structure at the corner of Loop 332 and Myrtle Lane.

“I get emotional about this,” architect Don Eckols said of the building. “This is a unique building and is very close to our hearts. It is a building that has a legacy to it.”

The building was constructed in 1871 by S.P. Stubblefield, then purchased and restored by Mel Fowler in 1973. Through Fowler’s efforts, it was recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark in 1976.

Because it is a historic building, the price tag for restoring it is high, coming in at an initial estimate of $601,388. The Council and city staff were not surprised by the cost.

“I think that when the City was talking about purchasing the building and restoring it, I knew we were going to be in for a lot of details and a higher price,” said City Administrator Greg Boartight. “But the whole reason behind this, is that building was going to sit there and continue to decay and fall into disrepair and nobody wanted that.

“I understand that price is high, but it is something that will be in our community for the next 200 years. It has been there almost that long now. I feel like this is an investment in our community. Where can you go and recreate or recapture what this building is?”

The City purchased the building in January 2017 for $225,000.

Eckols said the building has an extensive history, and in studying it, he found it was very sound structurally, in good condition and offered many options for the community.

“It became evident in meetings we had with the Mayor (Connie Fuller), Greg (Boatright) and staff, that what we had was a unique opportunity for a public space and community center, something the citizens of Liberty Hill could really take great pride in and capitalize on the art legacy Mr. Fowler created on a worldwide scale,” he said. “What we are presenting to you is the ability to take this building, be very gentle in our approach to the building to not change it, but to bring it back to life as it exists.”

The planned renovation would upgrade the building, making it ADA compliant, adding an elevator, new stairs and lighting, along with plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning work, but would preserve the rest.

“It is a modern building in that regard, but the essence of the building is just like it was when Mr. Fowler had it,” Eckols said. “We’ve already had meetings with the Texas Historical Commission, and they were very pleased with where we were going with the building.”

With only initial drawings and plans in hand, Eckols reminded the Council that the project has not been put out for bid and he anticipated the price coming down through some value engineering.

There are many options for what the building could be used for with a kitchen, restrooms and ample space, but Boatright said he hoped it would be focused on the arts and its heritage.

“We want to promote the arts in our community with that building,” he said. “That would encompass exhibitions of various artists. The kitchen and restroom access opens it up for a lot of different activities, but mainly we would want to incorporate Mel (Fowler’s) creations and the history that is behind the 1976 Sculpture Symposium in the building and make sure that is prominent.”

Mayor Fuller echoed that sentiment with her excitement over the plans.

“This is such a unique opportunity we have here,” she said. “How many communities do you go to that have that kind of benefit? The two things that we have that are our treasures are the downtown and the sculpture garden. I think we’re fulfilling what the founders of this city wanted when they said to preserve our heritage.”
Office space

The second project is a former residence on Forrest Street, adjacent to the police station. It is a 1,300-square-foot home with what Eckols said is a structurally sound roof and exterior, but only studs inside with no utilities or walls.

“The roof is fine. It’s got a good metal roof, so what we’re proposing is to paint the siding that is there, repair whatever is needed and bring up the masonry wall,” he said. “We’re proposing to enhance the exterior of the building and bring it up to the level of what we see now in the rejuvenation of the downtown area, and what we’re proposing is to add an exterior wainscoting, up to about six or seven feet, so it matches the new renovations and enhancement of the police station next door.”

When planning the renovation, Eckols said nothing was done to expand the building, but it would be planned with three offices, a bathroom, kitchen and conference room.

“What this does is it allows for the City to have additional office spaces, but also a meeting place,” Eckols said. “It is a very utilitarian layout, very functional.”

The estimated price tag, which was not based on bids at this point, was $219,000, a number that made city staff and council members pause. Boatright called it sticker shock, and Council Member Jon Branigan said he believed a new building could be constructed much cheaper.

“This building could be demolished and rebuilt as a brand new structure for a lot less than $219,000,” Branigan said.

The highest line items on the estimate included plumping, air and heat and electrical work. The cost per square foot was estimated at $171.77.

Eckols said he knew the estimate was high, but reminded the Council that transforming the structure from a private residence to a commercial structure increased the costs and scope of work. He did add that he believed the cost would come in lower once bids were received.

“This is without the benefit of putting it out for bid,” Eckols said. “These are numbers that swing to the high end, of course, because it’s always easier to bring that price down than to go back up. I feel very confident we can get this price down.”

To be thorough, the Council decided to have Eckols develop plans for both renovation and a completely new structure on the site. Both versions would be bid so the Council could weigh the options.

Mike@LHIndependent.com

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