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Historic York County courthouse awaits its fate

A man who came to the York County Courthouse last week hoping to find some legal paperwork instead found himself confronted by a group of men with surgical masks covering their noses and mouths.

He must have missed the chain across the columns on the building’s Congress Street portico, but he also must have missed the news: the courthouse has been empty for more than a year, after work crews started abatement work on the century-old building. And depending on the project’s final cost estimate, it may be closed for some time to come.

Since renovations began in 2013, the estimated cost of the project has ballooned beyond the initial budget. York County put aside $5.3 million to pay for renovations that would allow the building to continue holding court proceedings and housing government offices in the 21st century. But architectural estimates have put the cost closer to $11.2 million, leaving the project’s completion up in the air.

Of the budgeted figure, $1.5 million has already been spent removing plaster, lead-based paint and asbestos from the building’s interior. Because of the incomplete rehabilitation work, Assistant County Manager David Larson donned a protective mask when he led The Herald on a recent tour of the once-busy courtroom and corridors.

“The last time I was in here, I tried to be macho and not wear a mask,” he said. “Then afterward, I got a bad sinus infection.”

Until the building can be cleaned up enough for visitors to safely breathe inside the building, it will remain unused.

Outside the courthouse doors

Before June 2011, the historic building’s ornate courtroom hosted civil proceedings of the Court of Common Pleas. Now, chandeliers that once hung over its trials have been lowered from their fixtures and wrapped in protective plastic.

The walls inside have been laid bare by the work, and bits of plaster litter the hallways and majestic stairwells. In one upper room, a detached toilet bowl sits awkwardly in the middle of what was once the holding area for defendants.

In many places, the building shows its age. Its natural gas lines run through what used to be a coal shaft, and most rooms still have separate fireplaces. Unlike modern building designs, handicapped accessibility was not a concern of the original builders.

Several county employees were removed from their offices to make way for renovations, including Clerk of Court David Hamilton’s office. His employees now must use a rented building nearby, which isn’t always big enough to meet their needs.

“There’s not enough space for us to keep all our files,” Hamilton said. “The most recent files we try to keep at our fingertips, but for older ones you have to go out to the McCelvey Center.”

The temporary space also does not have room for Hamilton himself. The clerk doesn’t keep an office in the building, instead using staff members’ desks or conference tables for work during visits from his court office at the Moss Justice Center. He spends much of his time there anyway, trying to juggle court schedules between the displaced judges and the proceedings that would normally take place in the Justice Center.

“The scheduling can be a nightmare,” he said. “We have three judges and two courtrooms, so sometimes we have to use the jury assembly room as a makeshift courtroom. That can be problematic, because it doesn’t have the security features you want for a courtroom.”

Current plans still call for Hamilton, the county probate judge and the master of equity to be the main occupants of the renovated courthouse, along with the Common Pleas judges presiding in the building’s main courtroom and two smaller courtrooms.

In the meantime, the county is spending about $11,000 per month in rent for the displaced employees.

A long time coming

“We’re looking at any alternative funding that might be out there,” said County Manager Bill Shanahan. “If there’s any way we can do it, whether it’s at the state level, the federal level, any private funding. If there’s anything, we’ll go after it.”

County officials are still determined to complete the project, even if it seems difficult to do so out of the county budget. The courthouse has several features that would recommend it to outside funding; the building is primarily used for state court proceedings, and it was long ago placed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of six courthouses in the state designed by turn-of-the-century architect William Augustus Edwards. And if any grant opportunities present themselves, the remaining money set aside by the county could be put to good use.

“We’ve got a $3 million match, if that’s needed,” Shanahan said.

The county didn’t expect to be in this situation when planning for the renovation started as far back as 2007. But former county manager Jim Baker said the project ran into problems soon after design work began.

“It was Murphy’s law. Anything that could go wrong did,” said Baker, now a city manager in Chesapeake, Va.

After an initial cost assessment by the project’s first architectural firm exceeded the county’s budget, staff started working to scale back the scope of the project.

“There are a lot of elements that need to be historically correct,” said Baker, who left York County in January 2013. “But there are ways you can replace the windows, for example, that will look the same as it did and preserve the historic look of the building, but that are more cost-effective.”

The project hit other snags. Some workers had to be moved out early because of water damage (the building had a tendency to leak, Baker said, and needed waterproofing). Mold damage inside the courthouse’s ancient walls also called for extensive abatement work.

“There were any number of delays,” the former manager said, “and the delay meant more temporary lease costs.”

Even if other sources of funding can be secured, that might not end the wait for the courthouse to reopen.

“If and when it’s renovated, it has to fit the needs of the county 20 or 30 years from now,” Shanahan said. “We’re not going to move those offices in if there’s not the space for them, so we have to do it right.”

Getting back on course

Officials also hope to find savings by bringing down that $11 million estimate. York County has contracted with Cumming Construction Management to review the figures and make recommendations on reducing the cost.

“They’re going to use best practices to reduce that to something we can afford,” Shanahan said.

Cumming has previously worked with the Clover and Fort Mill school districts on the construction of new school buildings, and is already working with York County on its new fire training center. Company vice president and program director James Britton said the group will be engaged with each phase of the project, from budgeting to design to construction.

“Renovations are kind of strange, because it’s hard to know when to stop,” Britton said. “You start out doing the windows and then you have to do all these things around the windows. Eventually, you hit something unforeseen.”

Cumming has discussed the courthouse with the project’s new architects at the firm of Stewart Cooper Newell of Gastonia, vetting the schematic design and “trying to get our arms around everything,” Britton said.

“It’s critical you run on budget, keeping it between the ditches,” he said.

Shanahan hopes to have some new figures from Cumming to present to county council in the near future. The project’s final cost to the county taxpayers won’t be clear at least until then, but officials say they are sensitive about the role the courthouse has long played in the city of York and its contribution to the city’s image, so the goal is to try to save the building before its functions are permanently dispersed anywhere else.

“York is the county seat, so the courthouse and the county administration has to be located here by state law,” Shanahan said, “and we’re not going to be breaking the law.”

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