Passing judgment on a historic courthouse

The original Montrose County courthouse has been standing at the intersection of S. 1st and S. Townsend for nearly 100 years now. Age and usage have taken a heavy toll on the structure; in fact, the second-floor courtrooms have stood empty and decrepit since the Montrose County Justice Center opened in 1998.

The offices of the county clerk, the treasurer, and the assessor still operate in the old building, which needs a major makeover.

The Montrose Monitor recently toured the closed upper floor with Montrose County deputy manager Jon Waschbusch. He said that, if the county commissioners approve the project, the renovation will be extensive. “It’s a total renovation in terms of solid, modern plumbing and electrical work, plus drywall and insulation. New windows…pretty much everything. It’s a pretty significant undertaking.”

“We’re in design right now,” Waschbusch said. “We have F& D International, from Boulder”, a full-service architecture, engineering and project management company. “They’re working now, going through the building to determine structural integrity.”

How long is that phase is expected to take? “It’s targeted to be completed by the end of this year,” Waschbusch said, “including an estimated cost.”

And after that? “It would be construction,” and a big move, according to Waschbusch. “We have some departments that we would have to move around to empty the building. In an ideal situation, we’d begin construction in 2021.”

The projected completion date would be in “late 2022 or early 2023.”

The project would cost millions of dollars, but precisely how many millions is still a question. “That’s part of what we’re doing right now,” Waschbusch explained.”We want to know that it’s a cost that we can handle, budget, and plan for. That’s why the design has to come first, and the exhaustive look we’re taking at the building has to occur, so that we know with some level of certainty what those costs are going to be before we put it out to bid.

“It’s not a done deal that this project will go forward,” Waschbusch said. Of course, the final decision will be up to the board of county commissioners.

F&D’s design and assessment work might reveal some unpleasant structural surprises. “There are a lot of unknowns in a 100-year-old building,” the deputy county manager said. “The framing hasn’t been exposed in a hundred years; a lot of the systems have never been dealt with or renovated. One of the tasks that F&D is undertaking is to remove all of the lathe and plaster in this level, to get a look at what’s underneath, in terms of framing.”

Is there a Plan B if the commissioners were to decide that the renovation would cost more than it’s worth? “At that point, you’d have to figure out how you are going to accommodate the departments that operate out of this building, knowing that long-term you are not going to keep the building in use,” Waschbusch said. “We have the assessor, the treasurer, the county clerk, and GIS ( the county’s Geographic Information System) in this building. That’s not a great option, because once you move everybody out there’s very little incentive to invest to keep this historic building in use.”

The courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Does that limit the county’s choices about the building’s future? “Very little. The restrictions come only when you begin to take grant funding that would tie you to historic preservation measures. We have not done so. So, there’s a lot of latitude about what could be done to the building.”

There is no prohibition against tearing down a building on the register, said Waschbusch, but the county has no intention of demolishing the courthouse. “It’s a treasure of the community, it’s well-loved by a lot of people.”

As for moving those departments, “The moving itself is a matter of just upgrading some existing space that we have at the Health and Human Services Building on S. Townsend. We have an entire wing of that building that’s been vacant for twenty years.

“Likewise, we have a building at the Fairgrounds, next to Friendship Hall. That building is ready to go, right now, for the treasurer and assessor.”

Would the commissioners put a tax increase on the ballot if the cost of rehabilitating the courthouse turns out to be exceptionally high. “No,” Waschbusch stated emphatically. “There is no interest from the current board of commissioners in raising taxes, or asking the public for increasing revenue, to address this building. I want to make that very clear. Go ahead and put that in bold type.”

About the author

Dave Segal

Dave Segal

Dave Segal, a Detroit native, has been a journalist since 1977. He has worked as a reporter, commentator, and news director at radio stations in Detroit, Denver, and Montrose.

Dave has been writing and editing for the Monitor since its first print issue in 2003. He is editor and senior writer for the digital magazine. On the side, Dave has also done freelance writing, media relations, and a variety of volunteer work.