A lift for LeVeque: Project to modernize office space, add lobby, fix crumbling exterior

SOURCE: The Columbus Dispatch
BY: Steve Wartenberg
DATE: March 29, 2012
See the original article at The Columbus Dispatch

A lift for LeVeque: Project to modernize office space, add lobby, fix crumbling exterior

Standing on a narrow balcony near the top of LeVeque Tower, the wind whistling past the wings of the eight terra cotta eagles watching over Columbus, architect Robert Loversidge can almost hear the building beneath him breathing.

“A building is alive, it does have a life,” he said of the 555-foot, 6-inch tower, which was the fifth-tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1927. “And buildings like this evolve and grow and need to be renewed.”

It’s Loversidge’s job to renew and extend the life of the LeVeque as part of a two- to three-year renovation project that will repair the crumbling terra cotta exterior, which expands, contracts and cracks when water seeps in and freezes.

“Back then, they didn’t know a lot about the movement of big buildings and expansion joints,” Loversidge said, adding that all the motion “does bad things.”

The project will also create an entrance and lobby worthy of such a stately building, modernize all 46 floors of office space and apartments, and possibly add a boutique hotel.

The work will cost between $20 million and $22 million.

“This building has been in service for 80-some years and now we have a chance to give it another 80 years,” said Loversidge, CEO of Schooley Caldwell Associates and specialist in historic renovation.

The latest chapter in the LeVeque’s long life began a year ago when it was purchased for $4.04 million by Tower 10 LLC, a local investment group headed by attorney Robert Meyers and developer Don Casto. The sum was about half as much as the original cost to build the landmark tower at Broad and Front streets.

Loversidge is also the spokesman for the owners, who declined interview requests.

“They see it as a mixed use,” he said. “It wouldn’t be successful if it was just office space or housing or a hotel, but you take all three together, and we think it will be a great success.”

Property manager Kate Zurawski said the LeVeque is about 50 percent occupied, including a tenant in the famed apartment that occupies the 43rd and 44th floors.

The tenant, she said, wishes to remain anonymous.

The 44th floor was once an observation deck, but it closed in the 1970s.

The tower — originally called the A.I.U. Citadel — got off to an extravagant start on Sept. 20, 1927, during a ceremony that began “with a roar of cannon equaling a salute to a visiting potentate, a blare of trumpets rivaling the honors to an ancient king, and a shower of flowers from the air…” according to a Dispatch report the next day.

It was the dream of John J. Lentz, president of the American Insurance Union.

The Citadel was built with marble from Belgium and Italy, glass from Czechoslovakia and tiles from Spain.

According to the oft-told but undocumented tale, the height of the A.I.U. Citadel was chosen so it would be a little taller than the 555-foot, 51/8-inch Washington Monument.

Financial problems caused by the Great Depression would plague its early years. That led to its sale in 1945 to businessmen L.L. LeVeque and John Lincoln, who changed the name to the LeVeque-Lincoln Tower.

In 1977, Katherine LeVeque, the daughter-in-law of L.L. LeVeque, bought the building from a trust and changed the name to LeVeque Tower.

She lived in a 41st-floor apartment until last year.

“It’s referred to as art deco, but I think it’s more Gothic revival, or a hybrid,” said Columbus architect Michael Bongiorno.

Over the years, he added, the LeVeque has become the city’s most famous building.

“The question is, is the LeVeque as great as we think it is or do we think it’s great because it’s what we know,” Bongiorno said. “I think it holds its own. It has a uniqueness of design and would be an A-grade building here or anywhere else.”

The current renovation begins with the building’s terra cotta skin — sheets of clay that are formed into a variety of shapes and then fired in an oven. A glaze is added, and a second firing completes the process.

Years of rain, wind, heat and neglect have damaged the terra cotta.

“From a distance, it still looks like a premier building, but up close it looks tired,” Loversidge said. “It requires constant vigilance, and right now we’re behind.”

The LeVeque’s exterior features several terra cotta statues, including eagles, guardian angels and cherubs. Originally, there were four 26-foot-tall bearded giants at about the 495-foot level. They formed a ring around the building, their burly arms wrapped protectively around children.

They were removed in the 1940s because of concerns that pieces could fall.

“I found a piece from one of the hands in an office, and it was this big,” Loversidge said, holding his hands about 4 feet apart.

All of the exterior statues that remain, he added, can be saved.

“This is a very stout building and it’s held up quite well,” said Mark Ogden, a project manager with Turner Construction, which is in charge of the renovation.

He has become a terra cotta expert and learned that it is possible to patch some cracked pieces, while others must be replaced.

“Some shapes are easy to replace — they’re rectangles,” Ogden said. “Others, especially parts of the statues, are intricate, and we have to make molds.”

The new terra cotta pieces are formed by Boston Valley Terra Cotta in Orchard Park, N.Y., which Ogden said is one of only two companies that still make this once-popular building material.

Another issue, he said, will be getting workers and equipment to the upper floors.

But the renovation of every old building presents challenges, Loversidge said.

“The object,” he said, “is to do it right and make it last a long time.”