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Another endangered species: Historic Idaho courthouses

The Adams County Courthouse in Council, built in 1915, was demolished in September. Photo by Ron Sipherd.

When people talk about “America’s crumbling infrastructure,” they usually mean roads and bridges. But another piece of America’s infrastructure is crumbling: county courthouses.

With some county courthouses dating to the years before Idaho became a state, repairs are due. Apart from wear and tear, courthouses also face regulatory updates such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and outdated electricity, internet, and air conditioning.

But counties don’t always have money to renovate or replace courthouses. Typically a bond is required, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass. Some counties, such as Nez Perce, are considered “resorts” and can impose a local sales tax; counties such as Bingham and Oneida with large amounts of federal land have reported using “payment in lieu of taxes” federal funding to pay for renovations.

Fremont County Courthouse in St. Anthony was built in 1909 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Fremont County was the first county created after Idaho was admitted to the Union. Photo by Ron Sipherd.

Repair or replace?

Many residents hate to lose a community icon; 26 Idaho courthouses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But stakeholders sometimes believe, accurately or not,  that building a new courthouse on bare land at the edge of town is cheaper and more efficient than trying to upgrade an old one downtown. See IBR’s gallery of historic courthouse photos by photographer Ron Sipherd.

But moving to a modern courthouse out of town can erode the community’s sense of place. The county courthouse is often the most recognized building in town, said Jerry Myers, principal and architect with Myers Anderson, in Pocatello. “When communities were established, a few buildings were critical: City Hall, the courthouse, the Post Office, the school, the library, and the church,” he said. “They built them well. They were built to command respect and dignity for the things that happened in those buildings.”

“The courthouse is part of the envelope of the community,” said Paula Benson, board president of Preservation Idaho, which has been working with counties to help preserve courthouses. Courthouse visitors often stay downtown for a while, having lunch or shopping, she said. “When a courthouse moves to the edge of town, they take all that potential commerce,” she said. “It can be a nail in the coffin for the remaining businesses.”

Historic courthouses have a distinctive look, and that’s important, said Jane White, deputy clerk for Jerome County, whose 1939 courthouse is on the National Register.

“Another benefit is the familiarity and easy recognition of the building,” White said. “We don’t have to explain what it looks like to persons seeking directions, as we do for the Judicial Annex Building,” which the county bought in 2007 to expand its facilities.

Lincoln County Courthouse in Shoshone, built in 1904. Photo by Ron Sipherd.

Lincoln County is deciding what to do with its 1904 courthouse, also listed on the National Register, said Brenda Farnsworth, county clerk, in Shoshone. The building is too small, not ADA-accessible, moldy in the basement, and has outdated wiring and HVAC. “It’s either too hot or too cold,” she said. “We have to use window air conditioners, so when you answer the phone, you have to turn them off.” She added there are frequent visits from bats in the attic.

The county learned around 2010 that bringing the building to ADA compliance with an outside elevator and other remodeling would cost $4 million, Farnsworth said. A new building would cost $6 million. The only way to do either would be a bond, but a $6 million school bond has failed three times, she said.

Like Lincoln, Nez Perce County faces problems with its “1889ish” courthouse, which holds a place of honor as home to Walt Disney’s marriage license. The building has so many cracks that it’s called the “crackhouse,” said Patty Weeks, clerk/auditor. “We will need to do something in the near future,” she said. “We can kick the can down the road for only so long.”

“The courthouse is part of the envelope of the community. When a courthouse moves to the edge of town, they take all that potential commerce. It can be a nail in the coffin for the remaining businesses.”

Paula Benson, board president of Preservation Idaho

Bonneville County achieved ADA accessibility in its 1922 courthouse by making the ground floor accessible, and connecting the second floor to its Law Enforcement Building, constructed in the late 1970s with an elevator, said Ron Longmore, former county clerk. The courthouse was retrofitted about 30 years ago with a grant and county funds, he said.

Owyhee County has a different problem. The county, larger in land size than the state of Connecticut, has its National Register-listed 1930 courthouse centrally located in Murphy, said Angela Barkell, county clerk. While officials have considered moving the county seat to the more populated areas of Marsing or Homedale, “that would really be too far away for those on the other end of the county,” she said. This year, a Mormon cricket infestation left 400 pounds of dead insects on the roof, she added.

The Revival-style Caribou County Courthouse in Soda Springs was built in 1909. Photo by Ron Sipherd.

Old courthouses can be renovated to modern-day standards. The National Register-listed Boise County Courthouse was built in the early 1870s as a commercial building, became the courthouse in 1909, and was restored in the 1980s, said Roger Cockerille, fourth district magistrate judge, in Idaho City. “Although there are older courthouses throughout the State of Idaho, it is among the oldest functioning courthouses still in use,” he said. “While much of its historic beauty has been carefully preserved, it does have modern computers, recording equipment, air conditioning and is an ADA-accessible building.” Renovations are funded through the Court Facilities Fund, using excess cash reserves of the District Court Fund, said Mary Prisco, clerk of the district court.

Similarly, two courthouses in Kootenai County, each built in the 1920s, are on the National Register and were renovated in the past year to be ADA-compliant, said Shawn Riley, director of Kootenai County buildings and grounds, in Coeur d’Alene. Those renovations were paid for using dedicated funds from District Court, but a complete renovation of each building would cost $1 million to $2 million, he said.

Idaho Heritage Trust provides preservation assistance, as well as matching grants, and has awarded grants to several Idaho courthouses, including the award-winning Fremont County preservation project, said Katherine Kirk, executive director.

photo of paula benson

Paula Benson

Ada considering new administrative building

The new Ada County Courthouse was completed in 2002 at a cost of $57 million, but it’s already overcrowded, and the county might have to construct a new building for administrative functions, said Phil McGrane, chief deputy in the clerk’s office.

The building originally included administrative offices as well as courtrooms, but some offices have been converted to courtrooms, McGrane said. Since the building’s construction, $2 million has been spent on renovation, he said. The 2002 courthouse was paid for with bonds.

The previous Ada County Courthouse, constructed in 1938 and designed by Tourtelotte & Hummel/Wayland & Fennell, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It now houses the University of Idaho’s Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center, including the Idaho State Law Library.

Twin Falls County Courthouse in Twin Falls was built in 1911. Photo by Ron Sipherd.

Twin Falls courthouse

Twin Falls County is forming a citizens committee to explore replacing its 1960s-era courthouse, with the goal of holding a bond election in May or November 2019, said Grant Loebs, prosecuting attorney.

The 1960s-era building is the county’s second courthouse; its first, downtown, was built in 1911 and is now used primarily for offices, though it houses the prosecutor and sheriff, Loebs said. “It’s been significantly restored and remodeled in the past ten years” to include accessibility features such as an elevator and ramps.

But the 1960s building, across the sidewalk from the original courthouse, is itself becoming obsolete, and the county is running out of room, Loebs said. The county’s jail would also likely be replaced, he added. He didn’t know how much it would cost but that it would be “many millions of dollars,” he said.

Until then, or if the county fails to pass a bond to fund it, “we’ll continue to work in a cramped place that doesn’t have the room to do what we need to do,” while paying to house prisoners outside the county, at a cost of a couple of hundred thousand dollars per year, Loebs said.

The Old Ada County Courthouse now serves as the University of Idaho’s Idaho Law & Justice Learning Center. Photo courtesy of Lee Dillion.

Old courthouses get new role

Old courthouses don’t always die. They sometimes don’t even fade away, but find a new role. The old Ada County Courthouse became the University of Idaho’s Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center (see box), while the 1861 Pierce Courthouse, one of the oldest courthouses in Idaho, is part of the Bradbury Museum. Teton County, which built a brand-new courthouse in 2009, uses its old courthouse as the “Justice Center,” housing the sheriff’s office and other administrative functions. Bear Lake is considering constructing a new courthouse and turning the existing one a community or arts center, said Jerry Myers, principal and architect with Myers Anderson, in Pocatello.

Other uses for former courthouses include museums, housing, and charter schools, Myers said. But donating them can be problematic, he said. “They get handed to a nonprofit that has less money than the county, and the building deteriorates further,” he said. The former Jefferson County courthouse in Rigby, built in 1938 as a Works Progress Administration project and on the National Register, went through “a slew” of owners after a new courthouse was built in 2007. The 1938 structure was torn down in 2016, to the dismay of Preservation Idaho. Similarly, the century-old Adams County Courthouse was demolished in September.

Courthouses that become income-producing buildings are eligible for the national Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit program, which provides credits of up to 20 percent for renovations of a building listed in the National Register of Historic Places, said Jamee Fiore, National Register/Tax Credit coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office, in Boise. Preservation organizations are working to establish an Idaho state tax credit as well; more than half of the states offer them.

“The number one goal is to have them stay in the courthouse,” said Paula Benson, board president of Preservation Idaho, which has been working with counties to help preserve courthouses. “Plan B, if you’re not going to stay in it, then let’s think of adaptive reuse, such as affordable housing, so it remains an asset to the city it’s in.”

About Sharon Fisher

Sharon Fisher is an Idaho Business Review staff writer, covering financial institutions, technology, and business development. She holds a bachelor of science in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a masters in public administration and graduate certificates in geographic informational analysis and in community and regional planning from Boise State University. She likes explaining things and going to meetings. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_SLFisher.