The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 17, 2013

Preservationists air concerns over courthouse stair removal

By Kim West

— A typical work session for the Limestone County Commission lasts several minutes but Wednesday morning’s session lasted more than an hour as local historical preservationists expressed concerns about a proposal to remove a set of courthouse stairs.

More than two dozen people were in attendance in the cramped commission quarters in the Washington Street annex as several voiced their opposition regarding the decision to remove an interior marble staircase on the east side of the Limestone County Courthouse.

The issue arose when Athens-based Martin & Cobey, the general contractor for the ongoing courthouse renovation project, discovered the location of the walls near the present east elevator and stairwell on the first floor were inaccurately recorded in the original courthouse drawings.

The courthouse was designed by neoclassical architect Ben Price of Birmingham in 1916, according to the Limestone County Historical Society. Neoclassical is an 18th-and-19th century revival in art and architecture of the simple symmetrical styles of ancient Greece and Rome.

Project architect 2WR of Montgomery, which will be paid an estimated $252,000 for the project, had already released drawings for the current renovation project when Brian Moore, president of Martin & Cobey, determined the walls appeared closer in person than the original dimensions.

During the work session Moore disputed earlier reports that the wall “was about a foot closer” to the south wall of the elevator area than it appeared in the original drawings.

“It’s more than a foot — it’s two or three feet,” Moore said after being asked if the issue concerned a difference of only one foot of space in the courthouse.

Both Moore and Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee said changes to the 2WR drawings are being proposed to ensure the courthouse will remain functional throughout the renovation project while also being updated to meet legal requirements and fire codes.

“The courthouse was built for a purpose and that was to conduct county business and hold court,” Moore said. “We had to come up with a solution that would work with fire safety, the Americans with Disability Act and the program given to us by the (courthouse) judges. The box we were given got smaller and smaller.”

Moore said the estimated start date for the stair removal project would be early March.

Two local historical groups were in attendance at the work session, including the LCHA, a public group that restores cemeteries and promotes historic preservation, and the Limestone County Historic Preservation Commission, an eight-member board appointed by the Athens City Council that governs the building preservation in designated historic districts.

The commission did not officially vote but agreed to look into asking Robert Gamble, senior architectural historian for the Alabama Historical Commission, to visit the courthouse and review whether the marble staircase needs to be replaced.

“We will be satisfied if Mr. Gamble would come and look at the situation and see if he has any other ideas,” said Linda Nelson, president of the LCHS. “He deals with historical preservation and he has particular expertise in this area. We just want someone who is involved with historical prevention, specifically.

“We would be satisfied if he says there’s no possible way to avoid replacing the staircase.”

The County Commission will hold a regular meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, at the Clinton Street annex.