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Even with a new Justice Center, Courthouse’s preservation is important

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Johnson County Courthouse cuts a majestic figure over the Iowa River. In the past year, though, the large steps and central tower have been covered by a network of scaffolding. The Courthouse is undergoing a time- and labor-intensive renovation, even while the Johnson County Board of Supervisors pushes to partially replace it.

This may seem like an odd use of taxpayer money, but the current renovation is the right decision to preserve its function and historical value. Fiscal crises can cause local governments to neglect spending on infrastructure and public buildings, and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors is wise to avoid this problem.

The supervisors are hoping to construct a new Criminal Justice Center. The new, larger building would sit on the block south of the Courthouse. The supervisors have pushed the project for much of the past decade, and the new building may be approved in the next few years.

Although the Romanesque structure will no longer be the principal building for criminal justice in Johnson County, maintaining the Courthouse is important because of its historical value. American courthouses have traditionally been built to instill a sense of majesty in their visitors, reinforcing the respect that our justice system deserves. The Johnson County Courthouse is an excellent historical example of this type of architecture, and it should be preserved — even if that takes place on the taxpayers’ dime.

During recessions, the state and federal governments often accelerate construction projects to stimulate growth, yielding large results such as the Hoover Dam or newly paved highways. Cities and municipalities have neither the amount of funds nor the borrowing power enjoyed by their larger counterparts, and so local governments may wish to hold off on construction projects to balance the books.

The renovation of the Courthouse is not directly funneling money away from any crucial projects, because the original budget plan was for it to be done when the new building was constructed. The county had planned to complete the process earlier, but since the construction of the new criminal justice center has been continuously delayed, the opportunity never prevented itself. Eventually, the building repairs could not wait any longer, Johnson County Facilities Manager David Kempf told the DI Editorial Board.

The repairs underway at the Courthouse include tuck-pointing, a process that involves removing the old mortar from a structure and replacing it with new mortar to maintain stability. Tuck-pointing is necessary on any buildings using mortar that develop cracks and holes between the bricks, usually because of moisture or insect activity. The Johnson County Courthouse is 108 years old, and the process is severely overdue.

The consequences of forgoing the renovation would be more than superficial. The deteriorating mortar could cause irreversible damage to the structure, rendering it unusable. Brick usually lasts much longer than mortar, and once the tuck-pointing is complete, the building’s health will be guaranteed for many years to come.

Because the mortar surrounding each individual brick needs to be laboriously removed, supported, and replaced, the process is costly. Renovations on the Courthouse cost the county $488,800 in the last fiscal year alone, on a project that began in the summer of 2010. Still, the cost of waiting for the mortar to deteriorate further would be even higher.

The date for the construction of the new building, or even the likelihood, is still uncertain; waiting for the towers to crumble during a workday would be the wrong choice. Counties and municipalities do not always have the luxury of an ideal economic climate when appropriating necessary funds, but the supervisors are doing the best with what they have — in this instance, at least. Even if the Courthouse no longer serves its original purpose, the historical value is enough to justify maintaining it. Post-Soviet decay left blighted landmarks across Eastern Europe, visible signs of a country’s collapse; maintaining the Courthouse is important for morale, as well as the preservation of history.

The place the criminal-justice system holds in our culture merits repairs of the iconic Iowa City building’s steps and spires.


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