When L. Douglas Wilder won the 1985 election to become Virginia's lieutenant governor, he became the country's highest-ranking black politician and inspired the book “When Hell Froze Over.” Last week it looked as if Wilder would end his political career with a frozen City Hall after the building's antiquated heating system gave up.
The boiler was installed December 1971, Wilder spokesman Linwood Norman says, “so 37 years later, the boiler is no more to this world.”
After attempting to turn the heat on in late October, the machinery refused to work. Offices on the upper floors grew chilly and an Oct. 28 land-use committee meeting moved to the second floor where the weather was warmer.
After a building-wide fire marshal's inspection, the city handed out individual space heaters to employees, but on Oct. 30, the load was too much for the building's electrical system. Black smoke curled along some upper-floor hallways and employees were evacuated twice that day.
“What is this, Soviet Russia?” one city employee asked the day before on a personal blog. “The Fire Marshal is understandably upset with the massive use of space heaters but what the heck are we supposed to do?”
On the eighth floor, where the odor lingered, employees from the city auditor and assessor's office were sent home. The circumstances forced the city to postpone a public meeting to discuss revamping the city bus lines.
“We relaxed the dress code, so employees can wear a sweater or a turtleneck,” Norman says.
City Hall is being heated temporarily by a 4,000-gallon oil tank set up on Ninth Street beside the building. Norman expects a new, permanent boiler to be installed by the summer.
He won't comment on how much the space heaters — or the emergency boiler — are costing the city.
“How do you think we're paying for it?” he asks in response to a reporter's question. “We're paying for it as with any other expenditure.”