“Gutted” doesn’t begin to describe it.
When a few Columbia County supervisors got a peek inside the Columbia County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon, few recognized the interior of a building that has served the county for 55 years.
But with the help of the architect who designed the remodeling, and the construction officials overseeing the county’s $45.51 million building project, they got some idea of what the building will become in the next seven months — a 20th-century courthouse with 21st-century security features.
The tour followed Wednesday’s meeting of the County Board’s Ad Hoc Building Committee.
County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage didn’t join the tour, but he offered, as a preview, two observations: That people familiar with the courthouse won’t recognize it, and employees who will work there will like it when it’s done.
What tour participants could see Wednesday mostly was scaffolding and stacks of building materials. What they could hear was the roar of power tools. What they could smell was dust.
“Can you imagine doing business in this building during construction?” asked Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville. “Not just the dust — the noise.”
That was the tentative plan in 2014: to keep the court-related offices operating at the courthouse, 400 DeWitt St., while the building — which formerly housed Columbia County departmental offices as well as the courts — was being remodeled for court-related uses only. The administrative offices formerly in the courthouse are now located at the new Administration Building at 112 E. Edgewater St.
But when the extent of the remodeling became clear, the court offices and courtrooms were temporarily relocated to 111 E. Mullett St., a two-story structure that was built to be the new Health and Human Services building.
Architect Ron Locast of the Madison design firm Potter Lawson said remodeling the courthouse was the right decision for Columbia County, for a number of reasons — because the public wanted the courthouse in downtown Portage (as did many local lawyers), and because the cost, about $10 million, is far less than the approximately $24 million it would have cost to build a new court structure adjacent to the Columbia County Law Enforcement Center, 711 E. Cook St.
But it’s rare, Locast noted, to retrofit an existing courthouse with safety features such as:
- Retractable walls in the second-floor hallway, to allow an in-custody defendant to be transported to a courtroom without encountering members of the public in the hallway. Deputies would be equipped with an electronic device to activate the walls during a prisoner transfer.
- Secure entrances for judges from their chambers to their bench, with secure escape routes in an emergency.
- Five conference rooms where attorneys and clients can hold confidential conversations.
- A sally port, added on to the courthouse’s western wall, for secure transfer of inmates to a holding area that includes an elevator used only by inmates and the deputies guarding them. The area above the sally port will be office space for the judges and their staff.
The three branch courtrooms for Columbia County Circuit Court will be located in roughly the same area on the second floor where they are located now, but the layout will be changed, Locast said.
The courthouse’s first floor, however, is almost unrecognizable.
This is where the Clerk of Court, Register in Probate, District Attorney and Child Support offices will be located.
The public’s only access to the building will be at the main entrance along DeWitt Street, and plans call for the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office to staff a security checkpoint whenever the building is open.
Klaven told the Ad Hoc Building Committee that the tentative date for occupation of the remodeled courthouse is May 26.
Judge W. Andrew Voigt said he expects most court functions to return to the courthouse in the first week of June, but the sooner a transition plan is finalized, the better.
Also, the HHS building must be prepared for occupancy by Health and Human Service offices. HHS Director Dawn Woodard said the state Department of Health Services must be notified at least six months in advance before the department changes its address from 2652 Murphy Road to 111 E. Mullett St., so that clients of programs such as FoodShare and Medicaid can be notified.