Courthouse ceiling yields gems as restoration is being planned
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Courthouse ceiling yields gems as restoration is being planned

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Weeks before the courtrooms at the Kenosha County Courthouse closed their doors and shifted to videoconferencing in response to the coronavirus, the most prominent courtroom was already taped off and the doors closed to the public.

The ceremonial courtroom at the courthouse, Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder’s, is the most ornate of the county’s 11 courtrooms.

Nearly two stories high, it features original murals that were designed for the room when it opened in 1925, along with the original furniture and painted portraits of all the judges who have served in the county.

But hidden under a dropped acoustical ceiling are damaged architectural gems original to the construction, including ornate painted plasterwork and an art deco stained glass skylight.

There also is a decorative frieze that runs around the entire room, including a quote from Abraham Lincoln:

“Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country, and never to tolerate their violation by others.”

During a renovation in the 1960s or 1970s (no one is sure of the exact date), air conditioning was added to the courthouse. Prior to that project, it got so hot in the courtroom that trials were suspended during the summer.

While the project may have made the courtroom cooler, it appears the decision makers of decades ago put no thought into preserving the architecture.

When a portion of the dropped ceiling was removed and scaffolding installed so people could get in to see what had been done years ago, they were stunned.

“When I looked at this I thought you’ve got to be kidding me, someone really thought this was OK to do?” said Ray Arbet, county director of public works.

“I think the best term I’ve heard for it was ‘literally criminal’,” said Frank Martinellli, the engineering project manager for Kenosha County’s Division of Facilities.

Rather than put the ducts for the new system in the attic, a decision was made at the time to punch the duct system through the plasterwork, to cover the skylight with a coating of wire mesh and concrete, and to cover the whole mess under a dropped ceiling that looks like something from a basement rec room.

In some places, it appears a chainsaw was taken to the plaster frieze.

In some cases, Martinelli said, had that long-ago ductwork been shifted two inches they could have saved plaster work. Instead, they cut right through it. “You look at it and just shake your head,” he said.

Martinelli is currently helping oversee a study that will determine whether it is possible to restore the courthouse plasterwork, ceiling and skylight to their original condition, and to get a realistic cost estimate for the work.

Arbet said because the work is essentially an art restoration, getting realistic estimates of repairs is more complicated than simple construction work.

The Kenosha County Board budgeted $250,000 for the study, bringing in restoration specialists to look at the damage and to do “micro restorations” to see what would need to be done to make the repairs. That work is expected to go through July.

Once the study is complete and the county knows whether the courtroom can be restored and what it would cost, Martinelli said, they hope to use that information to apply for grants to help pay for the future restoration.

“The homework we are doing now will really help us apply for grants because it shows we’re serious,” Martinelli said. “We are searching for local or regional benefactors that are interested in supporting historical renovation projects.”

Coming Monday, history of the Kenosha County Courthouse building.

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