DADE CITY — There are 300 footsteps from City Hall to the historic Dade City Train Depot. But it feels like time travel. The contrast between the dilapidated three-story City Hall, built around 1920 as a hotel, and the charming folk Victorian rail station built eight years earlier, reflects the value of maintenance.
Two weeks ago 10 city employees moved from the musty second floor of City Hall to modular cubicles retrofitted into the former passengers' waiting room of the train depot. Their migration is the first step in an evolving plan for some kind of new city hall.
Inside the train depot, the vaulted wooden ceiling and oversized windows and doors brought a breath of fresh air. And every so often there's the rumble of a freight train barreling by.
"At first we all ran outside when the trains came by to wave at the conductors," said development review technician Karen Traenkner, who also serves as staff representative for the Historic Preservation Advisory Board. "Now that the novelty has worn off, the others conduct business as usual. But I still get dizzy when the trains pass."
"The whistle sign is just outside my office window," City Manager Billy Poe said. "And more than a few telephone calls are interrupted by the noise. I still think it's cool."
Equipment, employee cartons, filing cabinets and dollies still clutter the aisles while staffers get settled in. But the move has been a smooth transition — thanks in large part to East Pasco Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit leased the building from 2003 to 2008, during which time Habitat volunteers modernized the facility with electrical and technical improvements.
Even as they added modern conveniences, the volunteers worked to preserve the atmosphere from another time, said East Pasco Habitat president and CEO John Finnerty.
"I'm a history buff anyway," said Finnerty, 64. "I did the research among nostalgic images from old local postcards. And then we installed a mural to cover the southern wall."
The chosen images were superimposed onto four vinyl sections and then mounted onto aluminum panels. The huge tromp d'oeil gives the impression of a vintage Challenger streamliner entering the station.
Habitat also updated the downstairs trainmaster office, which has become private offices for the city manager, city engineer, city planner and human resources director.
The restrooms, sealed wooden floors, new wiring, lighting and fresh paint provided modern conveniences, "as we tied our mission to the train motif," Finnerty said. "I hope that the city preserves its integrity."
The depot will temporarily house part of the city's staff while officials work out a plan for a new city hall of some kind, somewhere.
The current City Hall is crumbling. The building represents a hodgepodge of efforts: Crews started the exterior in the 1920s with plans to build a hotel, but construction halted after the 1929 stock market crash. The interior was later finished on the first and second floors only. By the 1940s it was functioning as City Hall.
Now only the first floor accounting and water departments remain in residence. The upper levels have cracked windows, exposed air conditioning duct work and the thick smell of mildew. One employee described mushrooms growing on the second floor.
The industrial carpeting is ragged and water damaged. There are many missing tiles in the drop ceilings and stained, flaking plaster walls everywhere. The elevator and HVAC systems are noisy and inefficient. The cluttered archival room resembles a cheap motel.
At a commission meeting last month, Poe described it as "the ugliest building in town."
Poe is pushing for a plan to build a new city hall that would bring all the departments under one roof — and provide a better image to the public.
Something befitting a city that takes pride in its heritage.