Douglas County leaders want to prioritize delayed masonry work on historic courthouse; they also discuss other long-term facility plans

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The west side of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 23, 2021.

Some visible shifting issues and other wear is evident at Douglas County’s historic limestone courthouse, and county leaders said they think it’s time to move forward on delayed plans for masonry work.

In a discussion of the county’s long-term plans for all its facilities that took place at the County Commission’s study session Wednesday, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told commissioners that masonry work had been completed on the west side of the courthouse about 15 years ago, and that the plan had initially been to continue doing that restoration work one side at a time.

“And we never got to it,” Plinsky said. “I am significantly concerned about some shifting we have seen on the north end of the building.”

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The north side of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 23, 2021.

In addition, Plinsky said the lower level of the courthouse has been having more significant issues with water getting in. Plinsky explained that because limestone is porous, it’s anticipated that some water will get through, but that there is some waterproofing that could be done to help the situation and preserve the overall integrity of the structure.

The discussion about the exterior and basement of the old courthouse came amid the larger discussion of the county’s future space needs. County staff presented a previously completed 2017 space needs assessment and a 2020 master plan document, and Plinsky asked commissioners for their initial questions and priorities to help inform preparations for the 2023 budget and longer-range planning for potentially expanding or renovating the county’s three downtown buildings: the historic county courthouse, the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, and the currently vacant old public works building.

Plinsky said architects advised the county to take care of the exterior of the courthouse before proceeding with any work on the interior of the building.

Director of Capital Projects Jay Zimmerschied said that based on conversations with engineers last week, waterproofing the courthouse’s lower level would involve deconstructing the two stairways on the outside of the building, digging down around the building to do the waterproofing, then reconstructing the steps.

“And so we’re trying to prioritize that basement component to get it right before we spend money on a master plan fixing the basement up the way it would ideally suit the county,” Zimmerschied said.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

An entry way on the east side of Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 23, 2021.

Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said that hearing about water coming into the courthouse was alarming, and to her that was “very high priority.” Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said she has also noticed obvious wear on the steps on the north side of the building, and that she also thought the work on the exterior of the courthouse should be prioritized.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he agreed that the sooner the county addressed the exterior work on the courthouse, the better.

“I just feel like we can’t go much longer, as long as we’ve put off the masonry work that needs to be done,” Kelly said. “I worry about it. I’ve been down to the basement, seen all the issues there. I just feel like we’ve got to do that.”

Plinsky said the county is still working on cost estimates for the tuck-pointing and other exterior masonry work on the courthouse, and that she thought the county had a significant amount of the funding for that work already set aside within its long-term capital improvement plan. She said that once the county gets additional information about waterproofing the building, those estimates would be brought back to the commission.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The north staircase of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., is pictured on Sept. 23, 2021. The staircase is no longer in use.

Regarding the deterioration of the north steps of the courthouse, Plinsky said though the steps are no longer used as an entrance, they are a historic part of the building and have to be preserved. She said there are potentially tax credits or state preservation dollars that could help pay for restoring the steps.

When it came to the county’s long-term facility plans, commissioners expressed interest in renovating the old public works building at 1242 Massachusetts Street — which would entail preserving the historic church that is part of the building — with the ultimate goal of moving the county out of leased space in downtown. Commissioners also expressed interest in considering components such as victim services and child care in any future expansion of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, which houses the county’s courtrooms. As space or configuration needs within buildings may have to be reconsidered in light of the coronavirus pandemic, commissioners asked if pandemic relief funding could potentially help pay for some of that planning, and Plinsky said staff could look into that.

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