Keeping the courthouse alive: Scott County renovating historic building

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Renovation work continues on the Scott County Courthouse as painters give the interior a fresh coat of paint. Since 2004, repairs have been made to wiring, heating and cooling systems, and light fixtures along with the stone exterior. (Southeast Missourian)

BENTON, Mo. -- Even before the Scott County Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 28, 2004, the county government had seen the importance of keeping the old courthouse alive.

Years before, county officials had begun budgeting money for renovating the building. It was constructed in 1913 as the county's fifth courthouse, and through the years little had been done to care for the structure.

When the certification came through, they were ready to move ahead.

"Every building needs so much maintenance done to it, and this one definitely needed it," said Scott County Presiding Commissioner Martin Priggel. "We couldn't rebuild this courthouse again. It just costs too much money."

Not that Scott County would want to rebuild anyway.

"I've been to all the courthouses in Southeast Missouri, and this one is far and away the biggest and the best," Priggel said of the imposing three-story structure.

The three-story Scott County Courthouse dates to 1912. It is the sixth building to serve as county courthouse. (Southeast Missourian)

Priority renovation

Just months after the National Register placement went through, the renovations began. By now the county has spent about $1 million on the project, much of it money appropriated from the county's general revenue over a period of years. Not only was the renovation a priority for aesthetic reasons but for safety as well.

Electrical wires that were run on the outside of the building had begun to be exposed, creating a fire hazard. Some small fires actually were started from short-circuiting wires, said Priggel.

Much of the insulation contained asbestos which had to be replaced.

Another priority had more to do with cost and comfort than safety. The courthouse had an antiquated heating and cooling system, with heat from a boiler and air conditioning from window units in each room.

To increase energy efficiency, the old system was replaced with a modern central heating and cooling system that keeps a steadier and more comfortable temperature for employees and saves on energy costs.

Another renovation happened to make the employees' jobs easier -- replacing the old light fixtures with new ones that would provide better light to work by.

The next change was purely aesthetic. The offices and interior passages of the building were given a fresh coat of gray paint with gold accents. Those who work there agree the new look is much more pleasing to the eye.

"The place looks so much better than it did before," said county developer Joel Evans, who has helped oversee the renovations that have taken place since he took office in April.

But while the comfort level inside the building had changed, the outside was crumbling.

Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn said decades of freezing and thawing in the Southeast Missouri climate had seriously damaged the mortar that held the exterior of the structure together. A little more than $100,000 was spent this year to tuck-point the entire facade of the building. The masonry and terra cotta trim were cleaned, solid metal chimney caps were installed, lintels were recaulked and weeps were installed to prevent moisture from being trapped behind the lintels.

About 40,000 pounds of old documents and equipment were also removed.

Even though the courthouse was starting to fall apart by recent years, it has stood longer than any of its predecessors. The first Scott County courthouse was built from logs in 1820 and was soon razed. Its replacement came along in 1844 but was soon found to be unsafe and condemned.

The third, a frame structure built in 1855, lasted less than 10 years. The fourth courthouse was actually built in Commerce in 1863 to escape Civil War raids. That one proved to be too far out of the way, and the fifth was built back in Benton in 1883. It was demolished in 1912 when the new courthouse was built for a price of $100,000 to $140,000. That courthouse is the one that stands today.

'A magnificent building'

Scott County Historical Society member Lois Spalding is glad the county government made it a priority to restore and renovate what she calls a "magnificent building."

"I think it's very important, just for the fact that it is a beautiful building, and why let it go down?" said Spalding. "I wouldn't know why you wouldn't want to."

Members of the society were the ones who had the building placed on the National Register, and it holds a place close to their hearts. They spent two years filling out the forms and doing the research to earn the courthouse such a distinction.

The work on the old courthouse isn't done yet. The county still wants to replace the missing letters on the front of the building that once spelled "Scott County Courthouse." Another priority is finding grants to pay for replacing the building's roughly 150 windows with modern, energy efficient versions that fit the architectural style of the age.

The work on the courthouse seems to have sparked a movement to restore another of Benton's historic treasures -- the old Benton High School.

That building was built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Now a group of residents has banded together and is holding meetings to discuss ways to renovate the high school.

Unlike the courthouse, the high school hasn't been regularly used for years, making its decay even more accelerated, and the need to act quickly even greater.

335-6611, extension 182

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