The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 4, 2013

Marble staircase to come down in courthouse

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— Builder Brian Moore knows some Limestone County residents oppose a plan to remove one of the original, marble staircases from inside the Limestone County Courthouse.

“I’ve even had ladies at my church come up to me,” said Moore, president of Martin & Cobey Construction of Athens.

As an Athens native who works for a company that has been in operation locally since 1964, he says he is sensitive to the desire to preserve the historical integrity of the Greek Revival courthouse, which was built between 1916 and 1919.

“The courthouse is a beautiful building and we want to make sure it stays beautiful,” he said. But he says he is also a practical person. “We are going to improve the courthouse and not sacrifice historical integrity.”

He said his company has renovated buildings in the past that have required historical preservation, including at Athens State University, Mooresville and Huntsville. He said Martin & Cobey has also preserved the historic qualities of the building at the corner of Market and Marion streets in Athens, which burned.

The longtime builder said removal of one courthouse staircase is the only way to proceed with renovations needed to create additional and larger courtrooms, chambers and space for other employees. He said the renovation would also give the county opportunity to add two fire-safe staircases, which it does not have since the existing open staircases are not fire rated.

The problem

The move to remove one staircase was not the original plan, Moore said.

However, an inaccurate portrayal of the original building’s walls prevented the contractor from retaining the staircase on the east side of the courthouse interior, he said. The staircase closest to the Jefferson Street entrance, next to the metal detector, will remain.

Architects 2WR of Montgomery, which the County Commission will pay about $252,000, drew its renovation plan based on the original construction drawings for the courthouse, Moore said.

However, when Moore was in the courthouse one day looking at the walls of the current elevator /stairwell area on the first floor, he knew something was wrong.

“The wall seemed closer (to the south wall of the elevator area) than it appeared in the plans,” Moore said. “About a foot closer.”

Turns out the wall was never placed where it was depicted in the original courthouse drawings. 

“Apparently, nobody redlined it,” Moore said, meaning no one edited the blueprint to reflect the actual location of the wall.

Although the difference was only a foot, it created a much bigger problem.  The original plan was to build a new elevator to replace the 40-plus–year-old existing elevator because the county was having trouble finding parts for it, County Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee said. The plan called for keeping the old elevator running while the new elevator was built next to it, Moore said. This would have allowed both staircases to remain and allow people with disabilities to continue using the courthouse elevator during renovations.

“Otherwise, we were looking at taking a three to four-month break or moving the court operations to another location, which could have cost $1million,” Menefee said.

That is still an option that could be considered if officials wanted to save the staircase.

Another option would be to delay cases involving those with disabilities.

There could be a security issue if the existing elevator is shut down in order to build a new elevator in the same location because criminals would have to be walked upstairs for court.

Many of the county departments of use to the general public — including the county’s license and tax departments — were already moved to the Clinton Street Courthouse Annex, also built by Martin & Cobey.

Moore said one benefit to moving the new elevator to the site of the eastern marble staircase, in addition to being able to keep the elevator running, is that there is already a hole in three floors where the staircases hang.

Times changed

Not too long ago, residents could access the courthouse through five other doors, including the eastside ground floor door and four second-floor doors on each side of the building. However, these entrances have not been used since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.  After that, court users had to file through the main ground-floor entrance on Jefferson Street so they could walk through the metal detector.  Because of the change, most people who use the courthouse use the staircase that will remain under the renovation plan.

Moore realizes there is great nostalgia for the courthouse as it is, including both staircases. However, he believes the renovations will include improvements that are more historically accurate than what exists.

For example, the plan includes using the marble from the staircase around the new elevator, which would be recessed so the exiting columns will remain visible.

“It will look like the elevator has always been there,” Moore said. In contrast, the existing elevator does not.

Plans also call for removing the laminate-faced bench in the third-floor courtroom with one more historically accurate and in harmony with the original wood trim and moldings.

On the fourth floor, renovations will include creating a grand jury room, a space for court reporters, an employee break room and exhibit storage. It also means removing the plywood-covered hole in the fourth floor that obstructs the view of the courthouse dome.

“This is not an easy decision for me,” he said. “We are trying to be good stewards of the building. We are trying to keep this building viable and active. This building, once renovated, has 40 years of life if it is properly maintained.  I firmly intend to maintain historical accuracy but we also have to be practical.  With the list of requirements we were given — not changing the exterior, not adding on, meeting the judges’ and occupants’ need for space — that is how we came up with this plan.”

Menefee said he has spoken with the judges and that Circuit Judge James Woodroof Jr., Limestone’s presiding judge, and he agreed the county should move forward with renovations.  However, he said District Judge Jeanne Anderson is opposed to removing the staircase.

Neither Woodroof nor Anderson could be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Chris Paysinger, president of the Limestone County Historical Commission, could not be reached for comment on the issue Thursday afternoon.