Tornado-ravaged courthouse repair exceeds $15.5M
The dramatic footage of the Marshall Country Courthouse’s 16-foot tall cupola crumbling to the ground was replayed on newscasts across the country, becoming one of the iconic visual scenes of the ordeal. Shards of glass, bricks, stone and shingles littered the courthouse square in the aftermath. The landscape of the courthouse and the square on which it stands were dramatically altered following the July 19 tornado. In the days and weeks after the storm, it became apparent that pieces of courthouse history were in jeopardy of being lost forever.
Marshall County Auditor/Recorder Nan Benson was at work in the courthouse when the tornado hit.
“There’s no basement in the courthouse, so we were on the first floor and there are some spaces that don’t have windows, and that’s where we were instructed to be,” she said.
Benson recalled the moment she and her colleagues heard the cupola snap off the top of the building.
“It just sounded like something was breaking,” she said.
The $15.5 million rebuilding process, which began hours after the devastation, has been in full-swing ever since.
“Almost everything above the gutter line has taken damage at this point. We’re talking 75 feet and above,” Lucas Baedke, Marshall County Buildings and Grounds director said. “Below that, as far as windows and stones, there’s minimal damage. We had three cracked windows, which is actually pretty surprising. The only issues we’ve had structurally that could be a danger is being in the attic. The east side of the building has water damage.”
Baedke said he saved as much stone from the cupola as he could, but the majority of the structure ended up being discarded.
“We did take measurements for it, and it will be rebuilt,” he said.
Currently, the courthouse is closed to the public, with only employees and construction crews allowed inside. A perimeter fence was set up for the safety of passersby.
When the cupola and several of the chimneys were downed in the storm, they broke three sprinkler lines — all on the east side of the courthouse. Six of the eight chimneys collapsed in the tornado, with one unharmed and another later removed.
“We’ll use the chimney stone as much as we can to rebuild them. It’s all labeled, as far as where it goes and which chimney it came off of,” he said.
Baedke noted that while the dome may appear intact, it was actually twisted in the storm.
“It doesn’t look symmetrical, so the dome will be replaced. We actually had a contractor on site go up and look at it because we’ll rebuild the internals of the dome out of metal, rather than wood,” he said.
The cardinal directions once belonging to the weathervane were later recovered in the attic. The “three ladies” statues, which faced the north side of the courthouse, were also harmed in the storm. Made from tin and patched with fiberglass during the renovation efforts of the 1970s, they are being kept in storage. Baedke said they will either be repaired or replaced.
The entire building will be scaffolded in the coming weeks. Much of what construction crews are doing now is removing decorative work to better reach the damaged portions of the roof. Tubes were run throughout the inside of the building to pump hot air throughout the space in an attempt to dry out waterlogged areas.
“We’re going to save as much historic stuff that’s still in good shape as possible,” Baedke said. “Some of it we’ll actually have to buy back from the insurance company; what was replaced is technically the property of the insurance company. But we will buy it back.”
Inside and outside, the renovation process is estimated to take 12 months to complete. Opening the courthouse back up to the public will depend on the safety of the grounds.
“The $15.5 million is what the insurance company has set aside for the project, but usually that is not the final number,” he said.
In 2016, the courthouse celebrated its 130th anniversary, where residents had a rare opportunity to tour the upper levels, including going inside the clock room. The first five floors of the courthouse serve as office space, with the next five levels making up attic, clock and tower space. The building stands 175-feet tall. Formally dedicated on Nov. 19, 1886, it cost $145,000 to construct.
In 1954, and again in 1968, bond elections to build a new courthouse failed to pass. Thanks to an active “Friends of the Courthouse” initiative, organized by Mariel Oldham and Tom Swartz, structural and renovation architects were brought in to study the feasibility of renovating, instead of demolishing the courthouse. On Oct. 1, 1974, 70.8 percent of voters approved a $3.2 million bond issue for renovation.
Read more about the storied history of the Marshall County Courthouse in the September issue of Past Times, which inserts in the Sept. 2 edition of the Times-Republican.
Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org