Preserving History

Response to fire at Jefferson
County Courthouse illustrates
work of advisory group

New commission seeks to
preserve historic courthouses

By Laura Hodges
Contributing Writer

(March 2011) – Within hours of the devastating Jefferson County Courthouse fire on May 20, 2009, help was on its way from Indiana’s newly formed Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission.
As County Commissioner Julie Berry remembers it, Greg Sekula of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana reached her by cell phone the evening of the fire. As Berry walked on Main Street from the still-smoldering Courthouse to City Hall for the first of several emergency meetings, Sekula explained that the state had formed a commission to assist counties with preservation of their historic Courthouse buildings. Berry said Jefferson County would be grateful for some technical assistance.
Sekula made a few phone calls, and the next day Fritz Herget and Ron Ross arrived on the scene. Herget serves on the Courthouse Commission as a professional engineer and Ross as a professional architect.

Courthouse construction

Photo by Don Ward

Workers prepare the site to pour
concrete for a new elevator to be
built on the south side of the
Jefferson County Courthouse.

“They actually went up in the lift we had to give us some advice about what kind of immediate work we needed,” recalls Berry. The first concern was the precarious lean of the dome and bell tower, which threatened nearby people and buildings.
Herget and Ross gave technical advice on how to stabilize the structure. Their advice was free to the county. They stayed on the job several days, until the county could hire its own professional staff to supervise the Courthouse project.
The Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission was established in 2008 by the Indiana General Assembly. Its first quarterly meeting was in April 2009, just weeks before the Jefferson County Courthouse fire. Service on the commission is voluntary. It is chaired by Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and staffed by employees of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana Historic Landmarks Foundation. One of its ex-officio members is Madison’s David Terrell, director of the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs.
The purpose of the commission is two-fold, according to Jim Glass, director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’s Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology.
First, the commission offers technical assistance to counties facing various types of issues with their courthouse, from crumbling masonry and leaky roofs to more serious structural issues. Help in the aftermath of the Jefferson County Courthouse fire is the most dramatic example of this type of technical assistance to date.
Second, the commission is charged with preparing a report for the General Assembly on the value of Indiana’s historic county courthouses to their communities and counties, the condition of the 84 historic courthouses, the priorities for rehabilitation, preservation and restoration of the structures, and the needs of county officials as they maintain their courthouses and plan for the future.
To help with this second project, the commission has retained the services of Ratio Architects of Indianapolis.
Ratio will analyze information already gathered by the Courthouse Commission from county commissioners, county judges and site visits by the staff of the Indiana Landmarks Foundation.
Ratio will also gather information on funding sources for courthouse preservation projects, the importance of preserving historic courthouses to the history and identity of county seat communities and their counties, and the importance of preserving courthouses to the economic revitalization of county seat communities and counties.
The results of the analysis and research will be compiled into the report and the commission will use it to develop findings and recommendations. The report will be delivered to the General Assembly in August. Glass expects it to be a “useful reference source” for county officials.
Berry said county officials can submit copies of their courthouse building plans as part of this documentation effort. After the Jefferson County Courthouse fire, county officials were unable to locate copies of the building plans, which were stored inside the structure. That hampered the restoration effort until an off-site copy was located.
The Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission is designed to be a temporary commission. Its work will conclude in 2012.
One of the commission’s 12 members now is Jefferson County Commission Berry. She serves as a representative of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners, of which she is president.
I’m pretty sure I got appointed just because I have experience with courthouse fires,” said Berry with a rueful laugh.
“The county commissioner members have been very enthusiastic and that has helped,” said Glass. He said the response to the commission’s requests for courthouse information has been “really fine.”
Glass acknowledged that Madison and Jefferson County place a special value on historic preservation.
It would be almost unthinkable for Jefferson County to vote to demolish its historic courthouse, as Randolph County did in 2005.
Glass said opposition to that decision formed right away. A group of elderly women from Farmland decided to show their opposition in a bold way, with a “calendar girl” project. They posed for the camera “tastefully,” as Glass puts it, but with no visible clothing. Replicas of the endangered courthouse were strategically positioned to allow the ladies some modesty.
The “Courthouse Girls,” as they came to be called, turned public sentiment around. “Ultimately, due to a lot of advocacy in the community, that decision (to demolish the courthouse) was reversed,” said Glass.
Meanwhile, Jefferson County is making good progress toward restoring its 156-year-old Courthouse.
All the first floor window frames are repaired and back on site, said HGC Construction’s project manager Charlie Cravens at a progress meeting Feb. 18. These windows were original to the building and were considered architecturally significant. Installation of these original windows is to start soon, Cravens said.
Commissioner Tom Pietrykowski joked, “Maybe people will quit asking, ‘Are those Lowe’s windows staying?’” Both Pietrykowski and Berry said they have had numerous concerned phone calls about the temporary windows that have been in place.
The second and third floors will get new windows, replacing windows installed during the 1960s courthouse remodeling.

Other signs of progress include:
• Window lintels have been replaced on all three floors.
• The foundation walls for the elevator enclosure were being poured, with the help of a large concrete pump parked in the alley. The elevator shaft and stairwells are to be installed in an addition to the back of the courthouse, directly opposite the Main Street door. To allow access to the elevator, each floor of the Courthouse will have a north-south hallway intersecting the main hallway. Three exterior windows were removed to make way for the elevator addition.
• The old elevator has been removed. A closet for computer servers will be added on the second floor, in the location of the old elevator.
• Floor joists that needed replacing have been finished.
• Partition walls have been framed on the third floor and half of the second floor.
• Plaster patching is in progress on the third floor.
• Work is continuing on plumbing and mechanical systems.

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