By Mike Scott
Clark County’s historic 136-year-old courthouse is not falling down.
A tour of the Clark County Courthouse, built in 1871, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, shows the venerable old building is in desperate need of repair or replacement.
The Current Condition
of the Court House
Walking around the outside of the building, the stucco exterior shows multiple cracks and bulges. Last week, a section of stucco fell on the west side of the building. The building and the elevator addition have pulled apart, leaving a large gap. The foundation shows cracks, as does a chimney on the east side of the building, which also is bowed. Soffit pieces have fallen in several places.
Inside, the evidence is everywhere. Cracked walls, bulging paneling and woodwork, and doors that no longer close bear witness to the forces of age and gravity.
In the basement, cracks can be found in the restrooms’ floors, walls, and ceiling. Cracks and distorted window sills adorn every office on the first floor, and an interior crack between the original building and the elevator addition has widened since we first reported on the courthouse’s condition more than a year ago.
The stairway walls are cracked in several places. In courtroom, the floor seems to “bounce” as you walk across it, an effect more noticeable when the room is full. A window in the judge’s chambers has been bolted in place with a bracket to keep it from literally falling out. The roof leaks, and buckets are needed in the courtroom whenever it rains.
The steps to the third floor show they have pulled away from the wall, and up in the attic, several support beams have pulled apart, and just dangle in the air.
In addition to its physical deterioration, the electrical system is not adequate for modern office needs. Crowding and a lack of storage are also issues of concern. Conditions in the county offices across the street in the Hiller Building are similar.
What’s Happening Now?
“We know it’s a serious problem,” said Commissioner C.W. Higbee. “We just don’t know what to do about it.”
The county’s general revenue budget has no money available for restoration or renovation, and only limited amounts for maintainence.
The financially-strapped commissioners have enlisted the aid of S&V Consultants of Jefferson City. A November 5 letter from S&V reads:
“The Courthouse structure is “not” in eminent (sic) danger at this time, however; it requires prompt temporary shoring to maintain a safe condition for occupancy until long-term plans are established.”
The letter recommends using Road and Bridge workers to remove loose the stucco and chimney, and to use felt and plywood to seal the openings.
A November 9 joint press release from the commission and S&V continues, “During the past three months the rate of movement has become more noticeable. Only recently has the movement reached such momentum that prompt attention is needed.”
“We’ve been working with the engineer for more than a year,” said Higbee.
Asked if they were in the “study stage” or “planning stage”, Higbee said they were probably late in the first and early in the second.
According to Higbee, S&V Consultants are seeking grant funding to stabilize the building from the “preservation people”, (presumably the Missouri Heritage Properties Program administered by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' State Historic Preservation Office).
However, grants from this program cannot exceed $100,000, and generally require a 30% match from the local government, although that requirement can be waived in emergency situations.
The grants are awarded on a competative basis, and the application requires the proposed project’s budget and scope, Applications are due by November 31, 2007.
Without funds, there is little they can do, argue the commissioners. A half-cent sales tax measure for general revenue was overwhelmingly defeated last November.
“If we had gotten the half-cent tax, we could have already started doing something,” said Commissioner Wayne Bourgeois.
“I’m very concerned for not only the employees there, but for all the records that cannot be replaced,” said Circuit Clerk Mary Jones. “Some records are not on a backup or on microfilm.”
On Wednesday last week, a section of stucco fell off the building outside Jones’s office.
On Friday, plaster fell from the ceiling in a vault in Jones’ office.
“Whenver the court room is full, you can hear pieces of plaster drop,” Jones said.
County Treasurer Roberta McAfee shares Jones’ concerns.
“I was really scared last Monday when Judge Dial’s clerk showed me some of the problems upstairs,” McAfee said adding, “I won’t be coming to work if we get a heavy snow.”
McAfee also expressed frustration that the courthouse staff has not been informed about what is going on.
“Everything has a lifespan,” said Presiding Commissioner Paul Allen. “This building is 136 years old.”
Clearly, the courthouse building needs extensive repair or replacement to continue to serve Clark County.
Allen explained two ideas to stablize the building. One consists of a metal band around the building to keep it from moving further. The other would have steel rods though and across the building to hold the walls in place.
“Any foundation repair would require the entire building to be raised up in the air,” Allen added.
Raising the building would require the courthouse to be vacated, and there are no suitable office spaces available in Kahoka.
While the current commissioners declined to comment on estimated costs of renovation or building replacement, former Presiding Commissioner Steve Murphy, who had proposed to build two new buildings, estimated the cost at around four million dollars.
“Whether you tear down or renovate, the cost is about the same,” Murphy said.
Murphy suggested that the project be done in two parts, each funded by a different half-cent sales tax. Project One would build a new building on the courthouse square. After completion, the existing courthouse would be torn down, and Project Two would build another building, which would then house the offices currently in the Hiller Building.
Any restoration or rebuilding plan which would require new taxes to fund would require the approval of the voters of Clark County.