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Courthouse Renovation set to conclude during spring

January 16, 2019

Carl Grotelueschen is a big fan of historical architecture; the intricacies and details placed on structures built during simpler time periods have always been a draw.

“My wife (Paula) and I are very much into restoration on structures like this. We appreciate the architectural features you see in these small towns,” said Grotelueschen, District 1 representative on the Colfax County Board of Commissioners, referencing the refurbishment project wrapping up at the county’s downtown courthouse.

Following a 2016 facade study completed by the county, in April 2018 extensive structural work began on the exterior of the courthouse, 411 E. 11th St. The $962,564 project has consisted of terracotta restoration, masonry restoration, masonry cleaning, installing new fourth-floor windows and making improvements to the handrails and guardrails around the perimeter of the building to improve the safety and accessibility in the area.

Now, some of the final details like painting and fixing damage to the courthouse lawn – an expected result of some of the construction work – are in progress. The project is expected to fully wrap up in the spring once weather permits all of the remaining details to be completed.

Originally, the Façade Restoration Project was slated to conclude by fall 2018, however, some untimely rain and inclement weather delayed construction, information from Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl states.

The restoration project was needed at the $12 million, 1920s-built facility because of scalding to its terracotta pieces. Scalding occurs with time when the glazing that protects the outside of terracotta pieces from nature’s elements weakens resulting in micro-cracks forming. If not addressed, this scalding will eventually result in the terracotta pieces completely falling apart, Kracl said.

The decision was made that the courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historical places because of its architectural and political significance, needed to be preserved rather than abandoned by the county. This led to the board of commissioners hiring Columbus-based Bierman Contracting Inc. as the general contractor and several other area vendors to complete a variety of tasks.

To preserve the building’s history to the T, Kracl said that Abby Hegeman of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture surveyed the entire structure with a drone to scope the courthouse’s most intimate aesthetic and structural details.

Tackling the terracotta work was Mid-Continental Restoration Company Inc., which has specialized in masonry restoration for more than 60 years, Kracl said.

“The commissioners quickly learned that working with historical preservation and terracotta is a much higher-level project than a normal brick-and-mortar job,” Kracl said, through an emailed statement to the Sun. “With Abby’s (Hegeman) help, the commissioners were able to identify to companies in the United States who specialize in historical preservation or terracotta.”

Grotelueschen said he has been amazed by how well the building was cleaned up. It really is a night and day difference, he said.

“When they were doing this work, you could see where they had redone … and then you’d go around to the other side and there was a distinct color differential because they did all this cleaning, also,” he said. “So it really brightened up the exterior and it was amazing, I think it really brought some of the beauty back out with all of that terracotta work.”

Breathing life into such a focal point in the county is vital, the commissioner said, noting the importance of having a quality facility to conduct county business at along with preserving a real piece of history.

The original Colfax County Courthouse was built in 1871 as a two-story brick and stone building with a tin roof, information provided by the city says. But, as the county population grew, so did the need for a larger courthouse. Following approval through the board of commissioners, in 1922 the existing courthouse was erected just a few blocks away from the original.

Designed by Lincoln Architect George A. Berlinghof, the courthouse was constructed in the Beaux Arts style with a symmetrical five-bay façade constructed of cream-colored brick and buff-colored terracotta detailing. The original terracotta on the building was manufactured by the Chicago-based Northwestern Terra Cotta Company and features both sand-rubbed and vertical drove finishes.

Since being elected during the November 2018 general election, Grotelueschen said he has attended two county construction meetings regarding the façade project. Previously, former county commissioner Gil Wigington was immersed in the project, he said.

In small rural counties like Colfax, he said the area’s architecture and structures matter in terms of getting people to care and take ownership in their communities.

“Perception, to me, is everything,” Grotelueschen said. “When I drive into a community, what I notice is structures like the courthouse and structures like the library.”

The commissioner added that he appreciates all of the legwork completed by previous members of the board in regard to the courthouse project and other community building endeavors.

“This board over the years has done an excellent job bringing Colfax County’s infrastructure up to speed,” Grotelueschen noted. “They have just done a great job of taking care of all of our structures.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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