Courthouse choices


analysis by Mike Kroll

the Zephyr, Galesburg, Ill. Aug. 26, 2010 and Sept. 2, 2010


Let's start this article by itemizing some basic facts. The Knox County Courthouse is a proud old building constructed well before most of the electrical and mechanical systems we take for granted either existed or were commonplace. It was completed  in 1886,a much simpler time and was designed to meet very different needs of a smaller county population. The county board at that time moved with comparative speed and decisiveness to determine that a new courthouse was needed. They then quickly determined the building space needs, identified a renown architect and sought construction bids for the new building. The entire process took less that two years and the project was completed at a cost of  $146,453.51 (including furnishings and architecture fee to Col. E.E. Myers).. As originally designed it was heated by a steam boiler and gas lights were used for illumination; plumbing was rudimentary and, as per custom of the day, took little account of the needs of women.

In the 124 years since a wide array of building “enhancements” and remodeling has occurred notably including electrical wiring, addition of an elevator, new plumbing (including rest rooms for women) making third floor space out of what was once the two-story main courtroom gallery and the addition of air conditioning. All of these changes were completed as economically as possible and many, many corners were cut on regular maintenance to save county expense.

There can be no doubt that  brick, stone and steel building was well constructed of quality materials and good craftsmanship. And today remains structurally sound but nearly all of the electrical, heating and air conditioning, plumbing, and data cabling badly needs to be replaced and modernized. The beauty and elegance of Myers exterior design remains largely in tact only on the north and east facades and for the most part the interior portions of the building have lost much of there original character and splendor. Finally, the administrative and judicial needs of our county government have simply out-grown the building.

The questions that face the Knox County Board are: 1. has the present courthouse outlived its usefulness? 2. if the existing courthouse is to continue being used how can the necessary extra space be found? 3. if the existing courthouse is to continue being used how much effort and expense should be invested in preserving the historical design and appearance? and 4. if the county board wishes to abandon use of the courthouse what is to become of it?

While there seems to be substantial public sentiment that preserving the existing courthouse is important even if all county functions are removed it also seems clear that the not insubstantial cost of upkeep and potential reuse is of significant concern. If the county board decides to construct a wholly new Knox County Courthouse and move all administrative and judicial functions out of the existing building there is also the issue of the sentimentally and historically significant monuments that currently grace the green space principally east and north of the courthouse.

Back in April  representatives of Durrant (a Des Moines architectural firm) and Johnson Building Systems of Galesburg presented a joint proposal to the county board to perform “pre-design services” for three options to addressing the facility needs of Knox County. Those options included: (a) renovating the existing courthouse with an addition to expand available space, (b) renovating the existing courthouse for continued judicial use and moving administrative offices to a separate existing building in Galesburg, and © building an entirely new modern courthouse.

The county board approved a lump sum fee contract of $43,875 (curiously unnecessary precision?) and earlier this month Durrant delivered the highly anticipated “Courthouse Study: Master plan assessment” which was discussed by the building committee of the Knox County Board on August 10, 2010. The full county board was scheduled to discuss the study as this newspaper went to press (Wednesday, August 25).

Durrant did a facilities needs analysis to better ascertain the county's space needs but they seem to have reached some questionable conclusions. For example, nowhere in their plan is a meeting room suitable for the county board included. And in an era of declining numbers of actual trials, particularly criminal, the study specifies room for five courtrooms; one of 1,800 square feet, two of 1,200 square feet and two of 800 square feet. The specified space for county administrative offices and the Circuit Clerk's office appear generous. One illustrative example is the Public Information office with space to accommodate four staff above the current single staff member.

Another issue is Durrant's approach toward compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act with fully ADA compliant restrooms on all three courthouse floors. While this has become standard practice in new construction the requirements of the act only mandate that reasonable accommodations be made in existing buildings. In the case of a remodeled courthouse I suspect that a single ADA restroom for each sex located in the building's basement and accessible via elevator should suffice.

A major disappointment with the plans from Durrant is that even in the instance of opting to relocate non-judicial offices outside of the existing courthouse and renovate that building only to accommodate the courts and ancillary offices Durrant sees the need to append two ugly additions to the south facade. The purpose of the smaller addition (8,800 square feet) is to accommodate the previously mentioned ADA-compliant restrooms for each floor while the second is a large single-story security sallyport for the movement of prisoners. As illustrated in the report both are nothing but grafted on modern-style appendages bearing absolutely no concession with the original appearance of the existing courthouse.

Just as distressing, in both options using the existing courthouse parking is moved to the lawn area east of the building along Cherry Street. This would involve not only require the removal of many fine trees and the loss of aesthetic green space but also that the many historical monuments currently located in this area be moved. Essentially this  change would virtually destroy and courthouse's most attractive facade needlessly.

A much preferable option would be for the county to cooperatively work with Knox College to purchase the former Alexander Lumber Yard on the southeast corner of South and Cherry Streets. The existing structures could be removed and a parking lot constructed that can serve the needs of both entities without sacrificing the courthouse aesthetics.

The option to append a much larger yet still aesthetically inappropriate addition to the south facade of the courthouse to permit all existing administrative functions to remain on-site is even more of a visible abomination to the original courthouse design with the same parking lot problems along Cherry Street. The representative elevation presented in the study document is so bad that recalls the embarrassingly bad grafting of Galesburg's new City Hall to the Public Safety Building.

There seems to be no evidence whatsoever that the folks from Durrant gave any consideration at all toward an aesthetically appropriate appearance for either addition. A cynic might suspect that this was no accident. Perhaps including an ugly addition or an even bigger ugly addition to both courthouse reuse plans was intended to make these options as unappealing as possible so the county board would opt for an entirely new building.

The suggested floor plans for the interior reuse of the existing courthouse also raise questions. The floor plan of the remodeled courthouse is the same in both instances with the only real difference being how large the ugly appendage. With the exception of the traffic courtroom and a single judges chamber the entire first floor of the courthouse becomes the domain of the Circuit Clerk's office.

The second floor houses the largest courtroom and two smaller courtrooms plus three judges chambers, two seemingly small jury rooms, the bailiff's office and prisoner holding area and additional Circuit Clerk space. The third floor is home to the fifth courtroom and judge's chamber, more Circuit Clerks space, the State's Attorney's offices and the offices of the Public Defender. Despite previous discussion to move the existing public use elevator the floor plans show it remaining as is today with the addition of a second, “secure” elevator for the exclusive use of prisoner movement.

For an architectural firm supposedly experienced in courthouse design is seems to me that locating the State's Attorney's and Public Defender's office on the same floor sharing a hallway/public waiting area is a questionable choice. Do we really want crime victims and witnesses sitting side-by-side or across a hallway from the Public Defender's clients, their family or witnesses?

In both reuses of the courthouse the basement area is devoted almost entirely to storage and a secure entrance and exit for prisoners from the sallyport to the secure elevator. The fourth floor would be dedicated to building mechanicals and support needs with no public use or access.

Curiously, in the option with the large addition (48,300 square feet) to accommodate the administrative offices no effort whatsoever was expended to show any kind of floor plan. The folks from Durrant merely suggest the there is ample square footage to accommodate these offices within the addition. Also shown in this option is an elevator within the large addition leaving one to wonder is this replaces the existing public elevator within the courthouse or is yet a third elevator for good measure.

Durrant's estimated cost figures are also interesting. In both of the reuse options they estimate the cost to renovate the basement through third floor of the courthouse at $6,225,000 plus an additional $285,000 to “clean up the fourth floor.” Exterior repair and upgrades to the existing courthouse $500,000 and parking and site improvement/adjustments $950,000.

If the option to move administrative offices out of the courthouse is chosen Durrant estimates a cost of $9,9 million to acquire a building of 45,500 square feet and $3.5 million to construct the small addition and sallyport. If the option to construct a larger addition to house the administrative offices is chosen the estimated cost of that structure is $11.7 million. Durrant's estimates assume that purchasing a suitable administrative building in downtown Galesburg will cost more than constructing the large addition but frankly I find that hard to believe. The total estimated cost (including contingencies, professional fees and administrative costs) to redo the courthouse and move the administrative offices off-site is $27.5 million while rehabbing the courthouse and constructing the larger addition comes to $25.6 million according to Durrant's report.

The third option is to build a brand spanking new courthouse with an adjacent county administrative building on the south side of Simmons Street adjacent to the existing jail. The Durrant report reads as if this property already belongs to Knox County and that there would be no acquisition costs but that isn't the case. The proposed location for the four-story new courts facility would be where the former Carriage House store was located currently owned by John Pritchard while the proposed location for the four-story administrative building would be the former Illinois Power building (currently housing the Brighter Life Bookstore) owned by Mike Martin. In between these two is the former Lefler Brown building that would also have to be purchased and raised to accommodate the project.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what price each of these properties would sell for if this option were chosen. The property owners may or may not be eager to sell to the county and at least one operating business would need to be relocated in the process. Additionally it should be noted that Pritchard is the son-in-law of Alan Johnson and brother-in-law of Paul Johnson, the principals of Durrants's partner in this project Johnson Building Systems.

My initial suspicion was that this third option was the one Durrant really wanted to sell to the county board. The prices for rehabilitating the courthouse and accommodating the administrative offices seem inflated on the first two options and the proposed design so ugly that it screams of an attempt to make rehabilitating the courthouse the least attractive alternatives. However, the utter absence of any detail provided for this third option is just as astounding. Other than estimated costs this study says nothing about what a potential new courthouse and administrative building would look like or how they might be configured. Additionally, the critical 800-pound gorilla in this scenario, the total lack of space to accommodate parking, isn't mentioned in the Durrant study.

As far as estimated costs for the third option Durrant comes in at just under $30 million excluding property acquisition costs. A new four-story 66,000 square feet courthouse is estimated to cost $15.8 million while the four-floor administrative building is estimated at about $5 million (curiously this figure is about half the estimated cost of either the larger addition to the existing courthouse or acquiring a existing building to move the administrative offices). Durrant estimates that demolition of the existing structures to cost a quarter million, remodeling the existing jail to accommodate a secure direct access way to the new courthouse at $600,000 and site preparation costs at just over a million dollars. The total estimated project cost (including contingencies, professional fees and administrative costs) of building brand new all around is estimated at $30 million.

While the county board building committee seems to believe that they now have all the information necessary for the full board to make a sound and informed decision on the future of the courthouse I remain skeptical. Outside of cost estimates that often seem plucked from thin air this report is decidedly lacking in detain and specificity. And there are a surprisingly large number of factual errors and misunderstandings on the part of the report authors that concern me. The space analysis seems incomplete and there is no evidence that any thought was given toward blending any additions with the existing courthouse facade or detail. In short, this reports raises nearly as many questions as it answers and appears to be a poor foundation on which to base such a critical decision.


Part II


Last week I analyzed the three alternative solutions proposed by consulting architect Durrant to the courthouse dilemma and concluded that all three suggestions were severely flawed. Both of the alternatives to continue using the existing courthouse include ugly and inappropriate additions to the building. But both also swept away the many mature trees and historical monuments on the courthouse lawn alongside Cherry Street to make room for a parking lot. On exterior aesthetics these plans failed but their internal layout for the courthouse and its additions were equally ill-considered. Little is really accomplished if reusing the courthouse only creates new problems while it sacrifices the history it supposedly preserves and protects.

There seems to be general agreement among everyone I have spoken with that grafting an addition to the courthouse negates most of the value of preserving the building, sort of like the ”modern” façades grafted on to once-proud building downtown during the 1960s and 70s. And no one has seriously suggested demolishing the current courthouse but its prospects would be dim indeed if the county abandons the building entirely. The only realistic option that preserves this Galesburg landmark is to divide the uses into court related and administrative and move one segment out while rehabbing the courthouse to better meet the needs of those who stay. The deciding factor in this instance will probably be that it will simply cost more to move the court facilities elsewhere than moving the administrative functions.

Make no mistake, many courthouse employees prefer the third option of abandoning the current courthouse in favor of constructing a new facility; because after suffering for years in a dysfunctional and poorly maintained old building they see new as their best chance at a more comfortable and usable workplace. I also suspected that this would be the preferred alternative by the consultants as they stand to get much more work, and easier work, out of building entirely new. But Durrant failed miserably in selling this presentation by the near total absence of thoughtful design or detain in just how such a new building would accomplished. Oh, and the $30 million price tag wasn't any help.

The cost figures provided for both of the presentation options seemed very inflated. Does anyone really think that it would cost the county nearly $10 million to acquire and prepare a 45,000 foot administration building in Galesburg? Hell, Durrant's own option to construct a brand new 30,000 square foot four-story administration building only a little over $5 million. I suggest that it is perfectly feasible to remodel the existing courthouse to meet the reasonable judicial needs of the county, including all the necessary mechanical, electrical and other updates, (without any addition) for about $6 million.

There is no legal or compelling need to build a new elevator or create ADA restrooms on each public floor of the courthouse. The present elevator is in good shape and accessible rest rooms can be carved out of the courthouse basement. As to a “secure” elevator merely alter the existing elevator controls to permit security officers to operate the elevator in exclusive express mode between the basement and each of the three public use floors. The mingling of prisoners with the public would thus be eliminated in the elevator itself and can be dealt with (as is only occasionally necessary) between the elevator and courtrooms. There are very few prisoners that pose any real risk of escape or danger to courthouse patrons, certainly not enough to justify the additional expense.

There is no need for five courtrooms in a courthouse with four assigned judges and actually seldom a need to have four courtrooms. The biggest crowds are always for traffic court because no one in our judicial system seems capable of implementing a system that spreads out traffic tickets over two or three days rather than on Mondays only. Perhaps a system of evenly assigning different court days to police officers who write the tickets? If our judges can't sort this out they shouldn't be allowed to keep their prime parking spots at the courthouse door. And, let's please acknowledge just how lame-brained it was of Durrant to assign both the State's Attorney and Public Defender to offices across the hall from one another; rearrange the second and third floor plans to keep these offices separated, please.

Now some suggestions to the parking dilemma. Please banish any ideas of moving or creating parking where the current tree-covered lawn sits along Cherry Street. Instead, first expand the present parking lot westward somewhat without encumbering on Standish Park to gain some parking spaces. Then approach the Galesburg City Council to discuss widening Tompkins, Cherry and South Streets around the perimeter of the courthouse sufficient to permit the creation of angled parking spaces. This would potentially create far more parking spaces than sacrificing the west lawn and it would look retro-cool as well. And remember, if the administrative offices are moved off-site and we de-concentrate the huge number of people who show up simultaneously for traffic court on Mondays, the parking issue will be significantly reduced.

Now let's explore two nearby alternative locations for those relocated administrative offices. As I mentioned last week, the former Alexander Lumber Yard on the southeast corner of Prairie and South Streets could be purchased by the county. Demolish the current structures and build a new multi-story administrative building with room left for parking to serve that building. I have little doubt that this could be done for $5-6 million — thereby bringing the cost of solving the courthouse dilemma to the much more affordable $12-15 million dollar range.

But let me conclude with an idea that is well off the beaten trail of thought. Recall that the renowned Col. E. E. Myers was the original architect of the courthouse but he also designed another historically significant Galesburg building that currently sits abandoned and in disrepair — Knox College's Alumni Hall. It sits mothballed and unused on the south side of South Street as a neighbor to the courthouse. The design similarities are striking as is the potential fate of this once-proud building.

It has literally been decades since Knox officials spoke about renovating and restoring Alumni Hall to campus use but the lack of available funds has stymied any progress. Some members of the Knox Board of Trustees have reportedly stated aloud that the college must either find a way to restore Alumni Hall or demolish it before it decays too much further. Like the courthouse, Alumni Hall is structurally sound and its slate roof was replaced at significant cost just a decade ago. Its mechanical, electrical and other systems must be replaced and the interior renovated to suit modern needs.

What if Knox County approached Knox College and offered to lease Alumni Hall for a token sum over say 50-75 years with a commitment to renovate the interior to meet the county’s administrative needs? Knox has already done that with Whiting Hall which is leased out on a 99-year agreement.

Alumni Hall certainly is spacious enough to meet the county's needs and its location couldn't be much more convenient to the existing courthouse. The huge (~900 seat) central auditorium would make a fine community meeting room and County Board meeting room while the east and west wings of the building appear to be more than ample to accommodate all of the county's administrative needs in what would be a most fitting sibling to a restored courthouse. The angled parking on South Street should accommodate most of the parking needs if expanded to include both the north and south sides of the street and the speed limit reduced to 20-25 miles per hour.

The cost of this renovation can only be guessed at but let us presume it to be $10 million, This is no more than constructing an ugly modern addition to the existing courthouse. Because both of these buildings are of historical significance and community landmarks there may even be federal grant dollars to assist in funding such an appropriate and noteworthy project.

Not only would Knox County's space problems be well in hand but Knox College could escape from a campus white elephant it can't afford to renovate itself. Here would be an excellent opportunity for history-making cooperation between the college and the county toward achieving a simultaneous solution to a pair of stubborn longstanding challenges. I spoke with Knox College president Roger Taylor about this idea on Tuesday. Taylor acknowledged the unconventional nature of the solution and the unique potential but cautioned that it wasn't a solution he would advise his board to undertake. “I remain convinced that Alumni Hall is a valuable potential asset to the Knox Campus for which the college must find a funding solution.”

Ten years ago the Zephyr ran a story, “Alumni Hall restoration planned” which began: “Knox College's long-mothballed Alumni Hall may soon be restored and renovated if plans recently prepared by their architect reach fruition. While the Knox Now! $125 million capital campaign seems to have plateaued and the search for additional funds to built a new pool appears to remain stagnant, college officials hope to attract significant outside funding for this $9.3 million project from a variety of sources.

I beg both the Knox County Board and the Knox College Board to give this possible solution some serious critical thought. We have the potential to save two significant local historical buildings at reasonable cost and great public utility. Opportunities like this don't come up every day and we shouldn't reflexively dismiss this one.