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Commission moves on courthouse repairs
Building turns 100 in 2018 and needs some work done
new deh county commission courthouse pic new web
The Barton County Courthouse will soon be 100 years old and the County Commission is moving forward on repairs to the building. Shown are cracks in the northeast corner of the fourth floor. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

The history of the Barton County Courthouse

Plans are in the works to mark the centennial of the Barton County Courthouse next year, as well as make needed repairs to it. Here is a brief history of the building:

March 28, 1918, was a rainy Thursday. It was also when the cornerstone of what would be the Barton County Courthouse was laid with much fanfare, the Barton County Democrat reported.

Bands played and awards and honors were presented. Kansas Governor Arthur Capper was on hand.

“The laying of the cornerstone of Barton County’s fine new courthouse today marks another epoch in the interesting history of this great community of the Middle West,” said the article. At a cost of $250,000, roughly $4.5 million in today’s dollars, it would be four stories high and built of concrete, brick and steel (advertised as being totally fireproof).

“It will not only be one of the finest, but one of the largest county buildings in the state,” the article reads. At the time, it was about 30 percent completed.

The ground floor contained the boiler, space for the county farm adviser and a meeting room. The first floor housed several county offices such as the treasurer, county clerk and county commissioners.

The second floor consisted of the courtroom, the county attorney, the clerk of the court and the sheriff. The top floor had the upper part of the courtroom, juror dormitories and unassigned office space.

“When completed it will be a building of which every resident in Barton County can well be proud for there will be no more complete or better building anywhere,” the article reads. “The completed building is going to be a beautiful structure and monument for centuries to come.”

Construction actually started in November of 1917 and it was expected to be done by November of 1918. The start of the project was delayed at first because the previous courthouse built on the same site in 1874-75 had not been razed on time.

A follow-up article from the Dec. 18, 1918, Great Bend Tribune notes that the courthouse was finished. The first trial, a divorce case, had taken place the day before.

A few changes

The original building had an outside staircase leading up to what was considered the first floor. That was removed in 1952.

Over the years, there have been some office moves and some remodeling. The commission now meets on what was called the ground floor, and the Sheriff’s Office has moved across the street.

But, by and large, the structure has remained mostly as it was in 1918.

 All five Barton County commissioners agreed Monday morning that something must be done to preserve the stately Barton County Courthouse turns which turns 100 years old next year. They just didn’t all agree on how to make that happen.

“We don’t know what is in front of us,” Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Schartz said. “We’re just trying to do something and as we’re moving forward with some kind of project we can’t go wrong.”

The commission unanimously approved the less expensive of two architectural study options. This involves hiring WDM Architects of Wichita at a cost of $24,300 to do a structural analysis of the building.

The other option, with a price tag of $49,800, would have studied the structural integrity, as well as the mechanical condition. This would have included WDM looking into the plumbing, electrical, and heating and air conditioning.

The courthouse is showing its age and faces a myriad of issues. 

Three months ago, the county Operations Office solicited proposals for the study, Operations Manager Phil Hathcock said. Four were received and WDM was selected.

“The proposals, which were to include construction estimates, were to determine what is an immediate need for the county and what should be planned for in the future to maintain the courthouse,” Hathcock said.

The four corners of the courthouse have begun to separate from the center of the building, causing cracks to form and plaster to fall on the fourth floor, he said. Repairs done in the past, including turnbuckles installed to pull the corners together, are proving to be unsuccessful.

There is also a window in the commission chambers cracking due to settling. In addition, there have been pipes burst and other problems.

But, in the end, the structural woes took precedence over the other concerns. Commissioners left open the possibility of having a mechanical analysis done at a later date.

A long road

“I want to acknowledge the efforts of the commission over the past three months,” Hathcock said. They spent hours reviewing proposals, visiting with other counties, and discussing the best, most fiscally responsible, way to maintain the courthouse.

“We have spent a lot of time talking about this,” Schartz said. “This is a very important building.”

To Schartz, who supported the larger study, the commission could look at this a couple ways. But, “it is my opinion that when you have a building of this age and this many problems it is better to know what you’re getting into before you start.” 

A study may seem pricey since it doesn’t get anything fixed, Schartz said. It merely determines the scope of the project.

“I think we are all in agreement that the structural piece is the most important,” Schartz said. However, without having someone look at the whole project, maybe it’s the plumbing or something else. 

“In my opinion, it would be better to bite the bullet and get the entire scope of the project and a working plan that maybe we could work into our budgets over the next few years,” Schartz said.

A varied opinion

“I think we all do believe the structural integrity of the building is probably the most important,” Commissioner Alicia Straub said. But “at this point, I don’t think the public is excited about a major renovation like this.”

Straub’s opinion was to take care of the structural portion first, then later have a follow-up study on just the mechanical systems. She was also concerned that any cost estimates included in the comprehensive proposal may not be valid in a year or two when they the county could make the improvements.

She also mentioned the importance of maintaining the building’s historical integrity. Although it may not be entirely up to current codes, it has been grandfathered into the guidelines.

“What about insurance?” asked Commissioner Kenny Schremmer, who also supported the more limited plan. He was worried that malfunctions may not be covered if the county knows about things that need to be repaired but waits to do so. 

“The moment you start this, it’s going to get very expensive,” Schremmer said. “Once you start, you are committed to it.”

He favored delaying the mechanical study and establishing a fund to make repairs in the future. 

“I just think the building is probably stronger than what we think, but we need to find out,” he said. “We have a pretty good building right now.”

“I hate to spend good money after bad for this extended analysis,” Commissioner Don Davis said. “But in the long run, I think I would lean toward finding out what really needs to be fixed up for the commission to maintain building. The citizens of the county depend on it being here.

“I see us kicking the can down the road for whomever is going to be here behind us,” Davis said. “I think we need to do something now.”

“This is just an analysis,” Hathcock said, adding it only includes cost estimates for the work. “Nothing is set in stone.” 

Depending on what the total cost of a total renovation would be, the expense could be absorbed by the county budget over a period of years. However, it could require a bond issue, an idea no one on the commission liked.

“I think we can take our time at this and not rush into it,” Straub said. “The county doesn’t have funds for all of it and bond issue is a bad word.”

Two votes

After lengthy discussion, Davis moved to adopt the more costly option. Schartz seconded the motion, but was the only other commissioner to vote for it, meaning it died by a 3-2 margin.

Straub moved to accept the other option, which was seconded by Commissioner Homer Kruckenberg. This met with unanimous approval.