Anyone passing through downtown York these days expects to see the historic county courthouse sitting empty and unused.
But for the next few months, the building will hardly be visible at all.
Tall construction-zone fencing, soon to be covered with mesh, has gone up around the building on the corner of Liberty and Congress streets. Scaffolding blocks the courthouse’s picturesque side windows. And construction equipment has taken over part of a parking lot for the York County government administration building next door.
Work aimed at completing renovations on the courthouse started at the end of September. Earlier this year, the York County Council approved paying $7.3 million to Leitner Construction Co. of Rock Hill to complete the long-stalled renovation.
“They’ll be mainly doing outside work at first,” said Chris Whitley, project manager with Cumming Construction Management – the firm overseeing the courthouse renovation.
The 101-year-old building has been closed for years, with a simple chain hung between the columns of the portico at the top of the courthouse steps to keep visitors out. Inside, the hallways were cleared of exposed asbestos, mold and plaster after the walls were torn open during earlier construction work.
Now, preliminary work is underway to get the building back to where it used to be. Plans call for trials to resume in the building’s ornate courtroom sometime next fall. Many county offices currently housed in temporary leased space will also return to the building.
The most immediate renovation need is roofing, including adjustments to the internal drainage system that carries water off the four-story structure’s flat roof.
The green copper cornice that rings the building will also be removed, cleaned and restored elsewhere. Once complete, the building will keep the cornice and the existing red pitched terracotta tiles, said Kirk Broom, Cumming’s on-site manager.
The first big change to the interior is the addition of an elevator. Crews dug a five-foot-deep pit on the first floor for the bottom of the elevator shaft, which will eventually reach all four floors.
The new elevator replaces a warren of stairwells and brings the structure into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Two elevators on opposite sides of an addition to the main court building are also planned.
The project also includes new heating and air conditioning systems and plumbing throughout the building.
Currently, the courthouse is “basically a shell of a building,” Broom said.
Soon, crews will replace the walls, floors and ceiling in almost every part of the courthouse, except for the courtroom itself, where workers will refurbish the original wood flooring and the cathedral-style ceiling.
Broom, who has been with Cumming Construction for 15 years, said the York courthouse is the first project he’s worked on where the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“You need to take extra care,” he said. “It’s a lot different working on a building that’s 10 or 20 years old versus one that’s a hundred.”
But, he said, “it’s neat to see all the old stuff.” The courthouse finds include an old glass jar the work crew turned over to the county for historic preservation. Broom thinks it could be displayed in the restored courthouse as reminder of the building’s past.
Climbing price tag
Prior to work beginning this year, the building was shuttered for four years while on-and-off renovations were done to modernize it. But work stalled when cost projections overran what the county budgeted.
York County planned to spend $5.3 million on the courthouse renovations, to include modern security features, more office space and the elevator to provide access for disabled people. But later architectural estimates put the total cost at closer to $11.2 million.
The finish date is unknown. Crews plan to begin work on the second floor courtroom first. The third and fourth floors will follow. The partly-underground first floor will be completed last.
Outside, workers will clean the limestone facade and replace some windows. Large glass panes near the front entrance and on either side of the courtroom will be repaired rather than replaced.
Crews will also dig a 3-by-4-foot trench around the foundation to improve drainage. Much of the landscaping around the building, including shrubs and tree branches, will be removed.
But the tree decorated with Christmas lights in downtown York will not be disturbed – courthouse construction will just have to go on around it.