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Restoring Order: Madison County’s Historic Courthouse Renovation Is in the Details

The Madison County Courthouse is currently undergoing a major $18 million project, including significant renovations and two additions. Originally built in 1909, the building was designed by one of the most notable courthouse architects in the United States: James Gordon. The design incorporated many remarkable details that combine to create a beautiful, historic atmosphere. The renovation is restoring and uncovering a treasure trove of history that helps tell the story of this important piece of architecture.

As the original building was being erected, a time capsule was inserted into the cornerstone on January 7, 1909. The copper time capsule was opened during the current project. Its contents contained many artifacts from that time period, including newspapers, coins, photographs, Masonic Lodge documents, and government documents. Madison County placed the contents on display in the County Office Building for public viewing. After the display was taken down, the original contents along with additional items were placed back in the cornerstone in a larger, watertight time capsule. The items that were added included recent newspapers, items from each Madison County school district, and even locally made whiskey.

During design, the original paint colors were discovered through taking over forty samples of plaster on the interior of the building and analyzing the cross section of the embedded samples by microscope. Architectural Conservation Services provided the analysis to identify the earliest applied coating and color match to paint samples for the project. Through this unique process, LaBella Associates was able to bring some of the original character back to the courthouse. You can read more about the paint color detective work in Danielle Lewis’ blog.

Photo above: Madison County

New work in the interior is being done with history in mind. The original door hardware included bronze door knobs with the Madison County seal embossed onto them. In order to achieve the project’s accessibility goals, the knobs must be replaced with levers. As a tribute to the existing detailed door knobs, custom bronze door plates are being cast to include the Madison County logo and will be installed behind the door levers at all public areas. Additionally, the existing wall sconces in the feature courtroom were required to be replaced for energy efficiency with LED light fixtures. Ridley Electric had custom wall sconces produced to match the existing fixtures and maintain the integrity of the historic design.

While the project includes a near gut renovation, the original marble flooring and intricate plaster detailing in the atrium and feature courtroom are being preserved. The original stained glass features in both areas are being restored to eliminate sagging in the pieces, repair broken panels, and bring the vibrant colors back to life. There are eight small oval pieces circling a 56-inch-round unit in the atrium and an 8-foot-square piece in the main courtroom. The repairs are being done very consciously to preserve as much of the original as possible. Don Henry at Sullivan Studios states, “I am pretty conservative about removing any original glass and prefer to repair with a lead splice, copper foil repair, or epoxy repair of multiple cracked glass. If I throw it out and replace, the original glass is gone. If I put it back even in a repaired condition at least the original glass is still there for the next person to work with. I view this as a young piece even if it is a hundred years old, for I am the first to work on it and therefore sensitive to keeping as much original as possible.”

Exterior projects are also being completed to bring the building closer to original details. The dome is being restored through the removal of painted zinc panels and the installation of copper panels. The Lady Maat statue located on the dome is being recast. At the start of the project, the statue located on the dome was a fiberglass replica of the zinc statue relocated into the atrium. The original zinc statue was moved into the atrium when the base corroded beyond repair. Zinc is not an ideal exterior material, and because of pollution and vandalism, the statue was not able to be reused. The project is taking the original zinc statue, making temporary repairs with clay, casting wax molds of the original, and then casting bronze for the final product. This statue will be more accurate to the original than the previous fiberglass replacement. The clay on the original statue pieces will be removed so the zinc statue can be put back on display.

The eagle statue at the front porch pediment is also being replaced. The current eagle statue is a replacement, as the original disappeared at some point. The project hired sculptor James Seaman to build a new stainless steel statue that mimics the original eagle statue’s posture. Seaman worked closely with our design team to investigate historic postcards and interview retired County Historians to determine the most accurate design iteration.

The Madison County Courthouse additions and renovations project required close collaboration between Madison County, architects and engineers from LaBella Associates, construction manager LeChase Construction, general contractors Murnane Building Contractors, and the electrical contractor Ridley Electric. The design and construction team diligently worked together to create a project that met the needs of an accessible, modern courthouse facility, while being cognizant of original historic detailing that tells the story of this rich piece of architecture.

About the Author
Jessica Kruse, AIA, CDT, LFA, LEED GA, WELL AP
Project Architect

Jessica is a licensed architect with over 15 years of experience, focusing on higher education, municipal, and sustainable design projects. Her role on projects includes conceptual design, construction documents, construction administration, and sustainable design. Jessica is skilled at 3D modeling for conceptual communication and exploration, as well as BIM production for coordinated, cohesive construction document sets.