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Administration's Claims About Cordell Hull Questioned

Administration's Claims About Cordell Hull Questioned

By Phil Williams. CREATED Jul 20, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Outsourcing a piece of Tennessee history? That's what some advocates fear the state's about to do.

The Haslam administration is preparing to demolish the 59-year-old Cordell Hull Building next to the state Capitol, and one idea that's been discussed is turning the land over to a private developer.

But NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered that some of the administration's claims about the building's condition may have been exaggerated.

"It's one of the best examples of mid-century modern architecture in the state of Tennessee for a civic building," said Tim Walker, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission.

For historic preservationists like Walker, the Cordell Hull is a distinctive presence on the grounds of the state Capitol.

"This style of architecture came off the Great Depression. It was meant to be simplistic, scaled down, but yet strong," said Melissa Wyllie, president of Historic Nashville.

Built in 1954, it could soon face demolition if the Haslam administration listens to its consultants, Jones Lang Lasalle. Those consultant have said that the state may want to consider turning the land over to a private developer to build a new office building to lease back to the taxpayers.

Earlier this year, Haslam's General Services commissioner, Brentwood developer Steve Cates, appeared before state lawmakers describing the Cordell Hull's condition in the most dire terms.

"That is a very unique situation in that it is leaking," Cates said during the department's budget hearings before the House Finance Committee.

The building's foundation was not waterproofed correctly, the commissioner told lawmakers, and trying to fix it would be a logistical nightmare. The main issue, he said, is the cost of fixing the water problems.

"There's not $40 million available to spend to get it where it doesn't leak, where there's not mold, where there's not mildew," he added.

We showed the commissioner's testimony to House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner, then we showed him the consultant's report, showing the real cost of waterproofing the building's foundation: $2.8 million.

"The actual cost is $2.8 million and you're telling us it's going to cost $40 million, you've either given wrong information, you're not smart enough to know what you're doing or you're lying to us," Turner said.

"Do you think he was lying to you?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"You know, I don't want to call anybody a liar but, oh, he was grossly misinformed," Turner answered.

In fact, the consultants say even a massive overhaul of the building - including a new roof, new doors, new elevators, new air and alarms would just be $24 million -- far less than the commissioner's $40 million figure.

NewsChannel 5 asked the commissioner's spokesperson, Kelly Smith, "Did the commissioner lie?"

"No, he did not," Smith insisted.

Instead, she said he combined the costs of all repairs for the Cordell Hull -- with the costs for the adjacent Central Services Building.

"When we refer to the building, we are referring to Cordell Hull complex, which is Central Services and Cordell Hull," Smith said.

"But those are two separate buildings aren't they?" we asked.

"They are connected and we evaluated them as one piece of property," she answered.

Tim Walker had a different perspective.

"No one is saying we should protect or save that building, that could come down," he said.

Historic preservationists Walker and Melissa Wyllie recently toured the Cordell Hull Building itself -- with its marbled hallways and distinctive restrooms -- and asked to see the water problems.

What they saw was a storage room.

"It was being used for storage and there were electrical cords plugged in on the floor, which you wouldn't think in a room that was prone to severe flooding," Wyllie said.

But the department spokesperson said, "We have a very high operating cost in those buildings, and we are constantly doing repairs."

The other issue, General Services officials contend, is that the building's layout isn't conducive to the more-efficient, modern style of office design that the Haslam administration is now spending tens of millions to implement statewide.

"Is this building worth saving? NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Walker.

"It's absolutely worth saving," he added.

"The state should take the time to really look at those numbers and look at other opportunities for the building before we tear down something we'll regret in five years."

General Services officials said that turning the land over to a developer to construct an office building that's leased back to taxpayers is just one of the options laid out by the consultants.

They insisted that no decisions have been made.

Back to NC5 Investigates: Questions of Influence
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Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.