Monday, February 17, 2014

How NOT to treat your courthouse

There's no point in crying over spilled milk. And the people of Mitchell County will have to deal with their own mess. But it sure was sad, during early February, to read about demolition of an historic Iowa building --- the 1858 courthouse in Osage (above).

This lovely Greek Revival building was Iowa's third oldest courthouse. Only the Van Buren County Courthouse in Keosauqua (above), built in 1840, and the North Lee Courthouse in Fort Madison (below), built in 1841-42, were older. Both remain in active use. (Lee County is an oddity in the sense that it has a second courthouse, South Lee, located in Keokuk.)

The North Lee Courthouse, with its massive four-pillar facade, is similar in many ways to the main block of the now-demolished Osage structure.

Viewed from a distance, it all seems very odd. The unoccupied building, evacuated during 2012 because of alleged safety concerns, was demolished as a initiative of the county supervisors after voters last November defeated a bond issue that would have funded demolition and construction of a new courthouse, a project that carries an estimated cost in excess of $7 million.

Money was borrowed to finance demolition --- and it isn't clear where funds to build a new courthouse will come from, although apparently the county can sell revenue bonds without voter approval and supervisors say they're prepared to start building.

I've been out of the news business in north Iowa for several years, but do recall that the condition and future of the courthouse have been issues for many years --- and that there seemed to be little official interest in or broad-based community support for preserving the historic building either as a courthouse or for other purposes if a new courthouse were built. (Osage does not have a town square, so the courthouse location was not as iconic as it is in other Iowa county seat towns).

But the whole business was handled in such an odd and sometimes shifty way --- no one could be exactly sure who to trust, or who to believe. The supervisors contended at one point that it would cost $9 million to make the old building safe, I believe, which seems unlikely. And it's not clear that the integrity of the old building ever was thoroughly explored.

The whole business serves as a cautionary tale, however --- for Lucas County and any other county that has a fine old courthouse at its administrative --- and symbolic --- heart.

In southern Iowa, for example, Wayne, Clarke and Warren counties lost their turn-of-the-century courthouses years ago and now operate out of nondescript newer buildings. Their squares are lesser places as a result. Marian and Monroe counties have invested substantially in restoring theirs, with wonderful results.

Lucas County supervisors, with the exception of commissioning some pretty awful interior modifications and a general tossing away of antiquities many years ago, have done a good job of maintaining the structural integrity of our 1893 courthouse.

But the natural tendency of any vintage building is to fall apart. When repairs are needed, they need to be made --- and not deferred. Lucas County's courthouse is in serious need of restoration.

But for that to happen, those whose heritage it is have to assume ownership and take an interest in the building and its future --- not just say, "aw, that's the supervisors' problem." And be willing to fund its repair, upkeep and improvement with tax money or assist in the search for alternate sources of revenue.

 It's too late in Mitchell County and those folks have a fine mess now. The supervisors always will be remembered as those guys who tore the courthouse down and Mitchell County, perhaps, as a place that really didn't care about its built heritage. But it probably didn't have to be that way.

1 comment:

Norm Prince said...

Darn, I really hate stories like this one. This is one of those actions which can never be reversed and their past becomes more of memories than visual facts. Years ago I visited the court house in Page Co and believed it looked the same as it had on previous visits. But I noted a number of pictures on the wall which appeared to be the court house after a rather bad fire. On questioning the clerk it was revealed they had a terrible fire and then offered the choice to the locals to replace or restore. Although the choice to rebuild the old as it was involved extreme cost the people spoke and now their 'new' court house appears the same as the original, even to the interior wood work. Bless them!!