Hinsdale County officials are celebrating on Friday, September 15, with a 1 p.m. ribbon cutting ceremony marking completion of the multi-year renovation of 140-year-old Hinsdale County Courthouse.
Friday’s celebration starts at 1 p.m. and includes tours of the historic structure which has been repaired, stabilized, rewired and redecorated literally from the subsurface foundation all the way to the gable apex of the landmark structure.
Guest speakers at Friday afternoon’s “Grand Re-Opening Ceremony” are Grant Houston on behalf of Hinsdale County Historical Society, Colorado State Historic Fund’s Michael Owen, Christy Doon for Colorado Dept. of Local Affairs, and representing 7th Judicial District, District Attorney Dan Hotsenpillar and Honorable Chief Judge J. Stephen Patrick.
Also speaking at the ceremony, addressing Hinsdale County’s “Legacy and Vision for the Future,” is Hinsdale County Commissioner Stan Whinnery who served as county board liaison during the lengthy courthouse renovation project.
After the speakers, and with a justifiable sigh of relief, Hinsdale County Commissioners Whinnery, Cindy Dozier and Susan Thompson will cut a ribbon formally re-dedicating Colorado’s oldest operating courthouse.
Reflecting on the multi-year effort, Commissioner Whinnery says the courthouse “is the most important historical building in Lake City. Alferd Packer saw the interior of the building, and you can’t say that about many buildings.”
The actual logistics of renovating the building, however, proved complex to say the least.
After initially starting out to repair the foundation and cracked interior plaster, Whinnery says the projected “turned into one Pandora’s Box after another.”
“It became a question of where do you stop?,” he says, “it’s a terribly important vintage building and it’s not as easy as simply going out and buying new materials.”
“Everything,” he says, “cost more than anticipated and it took more time than we predicted to finish.”
Built in spring, 1877, the 30’ x 60’ two-story clapboard structure has continually served as headquarters for county offices and county and district court for 140 years — longest tenure of any still-operating courthouse in the state with the possible exception of the 1874 stone courthouse at Fairplay in Park County.
A new courthouse has succeeded the old Park County courthouse which is now used for only ceremonial purposes.
Since its construction when Rutherford B. Hayes was U.S. President and John L. Routt was Colorado Governor, Hinsdale County Courthouse has been continually updated to meet modern-day needs. Electricity was first introduced into both the downstairs offices and upstairs courtroom in May, 1892, although the building’s principal source of heating — individual wood-burning potbelly stoves — remained in use until the mid-1950s when they were replaced by a central diesel-fired furnace.
Despite the periodic updates, the building remained essentially unaltered until 1953 when a cinder block addition was built to the south to house the county clerk’s expanded vault. Also intrusive to the building in 1955 was an interior remodeling which lowered ceilings in ground floor offices from the original 12’-height to 8’, in the process blocking the upper portions of the building’s notable six-over-six pane windows.
The 4’ area above the new groundfloor false ceilings provided an ideal location for a maze of electric and telephone wiring, augmented in recent years by telecommunications lines with the steady increase in computer use. It was also in the 1950s that the old wood stoves were retired in favor of a diesel furnace and in-wall insulation introduced with blown-in vermiculite insulation. In the upstairs attic space over the courtroom, a maze of electric wiring was covered with a 2’-deep layer of dry insulation.
In an effort at modernization, antiquated porcelain spittoons were removed from the courtroom and century-old signs politely suggesting “Do Not Spit on the Floor” removed.
Dusty old wrought-iron chandeliers which originally held kerosine lamps were removed from the courtroom ceiling and religated to a cramped storage area beneath the courtroom steps.
Mid-1950s to early 1960s remodeling also included the installation of banks of fluorescent lights in downstairs offices and on the ceiling of the upstairs courtroom. Original wide-plank pine boards comprising the courtroom floor were covered with plyboard and linoleum in a 1950s-era carpet pattern.
“The county’s goal all along in completing the project,” according to Commissioner Whinnery, “was, first and foremost, to preserve and make functional a nationally significant historic structure.”
“My personal goal was to retain the appearance of the upstairs courtroom with an ambiance just as Alferd Packer saw it in 1883. The challenge,” he adds, “was to make modern-day 2017 match 1883.”
The county’s goal in renovating downstairs offices, Whinnery adds, was to make the offices functional and a pleasing work environment for the county staff. The completed project gives an added 35 to 40 years’ life for the courthouse and “much longer with proper maintenance,” according to the commissioner.
The end result unveiled this week is “something the citizens of this county can truly be proud of.” The renovation, Whinnery adds, was accomplished without making the courthouse “too fancy… and without breaking the bank.”
“The end result was well beyond our expectations.”
As the venerable courthouse entered the 21st Century, its third century of use, it was clearly showing the wear and tear from repeated remodeling and deferred maintenance.
Most troubling to county officials working in the building on a daily basis was a subtle shift in the structure as the northwest corner of the building slowly settled and increasingly large cracks appeared
on interior plaster walls. From the outside glancing up to the west-facing gable end, a discerning eye seeing a steadily widening crack at the apex-end of the top gable.
In addition to widening cracks in the upstairs courtroom’s plaster walls, also unsettling was a pronounced downward bowing of the courtroom ceiling.
Dedicated to maintaining the historic structure as an iconic headquarters for county government, Hinsdale Commissioners in 2012 received a $15,000 structural assessment grant funded by the State Historic Fund. Results of the assessment report by Slater Paull Architects and Resource Engineering Group were sobering.
The assessment concluded that portions of the original stacked rock foundation were failing, exacerbated by poor drainage which in fact directed water onto the base of the building, resulting in a gradual sinking along the north and northwest corner of the building as wood structural supports rotted at ground level.
Particularly sobering to Hinsdale County Commissioners and county staff was the assessment report’s conclusion that without prompt attention, the potential of “catastrophic failure” was probable.
Initial Phase I work began in 2014 with excavation and replacement of the building’s stacked rock foundation on the east, north and west sides. Asphalt paving which unintentionally directed drainage onto the building and foundation to the west and east was removed, and Forest Gray’s Sunshine Construction crew excavated a trench to reveal the original stone foundation.
One of the most interesting aspects of the entire project — termed by Hinsdale Commissioner Stan Whinnery as “most surprising” — was the discovery of the original courthouse cornerstone at the northeast corner of the building. The non-watertight cornerstone was formally dedicated by Lake City’s IOOF brethren, Silver Star Lodge No. 27, in April, 1877.
Newspaper and other paper items in the cornerstone were destroyed by water infiltration in subsequent years, although non-paper memorabilia including a selection of U.S. coins and, most interesting, an engraved copper plate with the names of local, state and national dignitaries were removed in near-pristine condition.
The cornerstone memorabilia has now been transferred to Hinsdale County Museum where it is on public display.
Less pleasant discoveries made during the multi-year course of the renovation project included a spaghetti-like maze of electric wires and cables, some of which posed a clear fire hazard to the frame building. According to Hinsdale Commissioner Whinnery, it was perhaps the building’s interior plaster walls which in fact kept the building from burning years ago.
“In the process of our work,” says Whinnery, “we found scorch marks on the plaster which had been caused by faulty wiring.” The plaster kept the electric-caused sparks from igniting the building’s tinder-dry framework.
“It’s amazing the building didn’t catch fire and burn to the ground,” Whinnery says in regard to the labyrinth of old wiring which was removed, together with more recent wiring which was strung throughout the building with the advent of computers in every office.
Efforts which initially began in 2012 with planning to replace the failed foundation and stabilize the building’s walls and roof steadily expanded in 2014, 2015, 2016 and up through the past summer of 2017 as the project expanded to include interior wall repair, removal of the old 1950s lowered ceilings, window rehabilitation, painting, the addition of a handicapped-accessible bathroom, new electric wiring and a new ventilation and heating system, exterior and interior painting, floor and furniture refinishing, and a code-compliant metal emergency stairway which was installed outside the building.
The ongoing work included disruptions to county office service as Hinsdale County Clerk & Recorder, Treasurer, and Assessor were twice moved out of the courthouse and relocated to temporary offices in modular units. The first move took place from June into August, 2015, when the county officers occupied two 600-s.f. mobiles, each 8’-wide and 40’-long.
The county offices were brought back into the courthouse late in 2015 but again moved out and relocated into more spacious modular offices, these 12’-wide and 64’-long, including plumbing, starting in April, 2016, and continuing until this month. The most recent modular offices — expanded with a connecting deck, and access ramp and stairs — are located to the north of the county courthouse on county land at the corner of 4th and Henson Streets.
Also moved out of the courthouse in 2015 and again from 2016 until just this month were Hinsdale County District and County Courts which left the courtroom and offices on the second story to occupy the commissioners’ meeting room in the adjacent Coursey Annex.
An added glitch to the courthouse renovation efforts came in March, 2016, when slightly elevated levels of formaldehyde were detected in air samples taken in both ground floor offices and the upper courtroom level of the building.
As industrial-grade air scrubbers were brought in and run continually to cleanse the air, a sign was briefly posted on the courthouse doors “Enter at Your Own Risk.”
The exact cause of the high levels of formaldehyde in the courthouse air was never fully determined, suggestions including that the chemical arose from interior furnishings, including carpeting, or the possibility that the building was increasingly encapsulated, the interior trapped emissions from 140 years of smoke which had been absorbed into the woodwork.
With the building once again emptied of county and court offices since April, 2016, renovation work inside and outside the building continued full-pace, with estimations for completion and re-dedication ceremonies gradually pushed back from around Christmas last winter to mid-summer this year, August 1 being briefly considered before a final determination to hold the celebration ceremony on Friday this week.