An ongoing project at the Kenosha County Courthouse is updating courtrooms to accommodate modern technology — and may possibly reveal a hidden past.
The county has budgeted the gradual renovation of courtrooms in the historic building, with the most recent renovation unveiled Monday. Circuit Court Judge David Bastianelli, along with County Executive Jim Kreuser and Clerk of Courts Rebecca Matoska-Mentink, cut a ceremonial ribbon to reopen Bastianelli’s second-floor Branch 1 courtroom.
The courtroom had been undergoing renovation since April, with updated lighting and audio; new desks for the judge, clerk, court reporter and attorneys; and upgrades to the jury room. The budget for the project was $390,000.
Most significant for operations in the courtroom, the renovation upgrades technology, allowing attorneys and expert witnesses to link computers with the video screens in the courtroom from their desks.
Video and photographic evidence is commonly used at trial, but with the former technology systems in the courtroom, it wasn’t always easy for attorneys to operate. “It’s little things like that that make a big difference when you are running the system,” Bastianelli said as he pointed out the technology upgrades at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The Branch 1 courtroom is the second to be renovated in the project. Last year, the first-floor Branch 4 courtroom used by Judge Anthony Milisauskas was renovated.
Additional work likely
Frank Martinelli, engineering projects manager for the county, said there are also likely to be smaller repairs and renovations done to other courtrooms in the building.
But the biggest project in the renovation is still a question mark. Martinelli said a study is underway on whether it would be possible to repair 1960s-era damage to the ceremonial courtroom used by Judge Bruce Schroeder in Branch 3.
The largest courtroom in the building, Schroeder’s courtroom features many period details original to the time the building opened in 1925, including an original mural of Lady Justice.
But during a 1970s renovation when air conditioning was added to the building, contractors punched duct work through ornate plaster details in the room and added a drop ceiling to cover the ducts. In doing so, they also covered a stained glass skylight and a frieze that includes a quote from Abraham Lincoln.
The quote hidden under the ceiling comes from Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Jan. 27, 1838, in Springfield, Ill.: “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.”
Martinelli said that, in the spring, a portion of the dropped ceiling was removed for two weeks as consultants studied the ceiling and plasterwork to see if it would be feasible to repair. They also removed small portions of the white paint on the walls at the rear of the courtroom to see whether gold leaf stencils, visible in old photographs of the courtroom, could still be found under the paint. The outlines of the stencils are still there.
Martinelli said the ornate plasterwork hidden by the ceiling “is, to me, gorgeous.” But it is also seriously damaged, as is the stained glass skylight. “The future of it is a little uncertain,” he said, saying that there is money in the budget this year for the study, but not money for repairs for the courtroom.
If the study results show repair is possible, Martinelli said the county will look at the logistics of the project and the potential costs — and seek out state and federal grants — to decide whether renovating the courtroom in the future is feasible. That study process is not likely to be complete until sometime next year, Martinelli said.
The neoclassical courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and much of its original interior architectural detail is intact, including several murals. Martinelli said an exterior renovation was completed six years ago, including repairing the damaged limestone facade and replacing a leaking roof.
“We really do have a crown jewel,” Martinelli said of the building. “It’s amazing, and it’s an honor to be part of the stewardship.”