Costs for courthouse dome repair go through the roof

The Pacific County Courthouse in South Bend

PACIFIC COUNTY - When it rains, it pours water through the copper roof of the 98-year-old Pacific County Courthouse and into "at least 100 buckets" according to County Administrator Bryan Harrison. "And the problem is getting worse each year," he says. "Some of the leaks are minor, but some are becoming major." The long-term solution may be in the developmental stages on the drawing board of an architect in Tacoma.

The leakage problem according to Harrison is caused because the copper was improperly installed in 1992 when the domed part of the roof was repaired. "The seams were not crimped well enough so that there was adequate overlap and when the water is blown in by our storms, the roof leaks," Harrison explains succinctly.

Adding to the dilemma of the leaking roof is the fact that the Pacific County Courthouse has been on the National Registry of Historical Places since July 20, 1977. Any improvements have to be approved by the United States Department of the Interior for the building to remain on the register.

Harrison says, "We could easily put a membrane roof over the dome to stop the leaks, but we would not be in compliance with the Department of Interior's guidelines to keep the courthouse on the National Registry. The membrane would be ugly when compared to the copper, but the cost would be within our budget." Harrison pointed out that a much larger membrane roof over the Public Safety and County Jail Building attached to the Courthouse cost a little over $200,000.

Other options for the 10,000 square-foot dome are much more expensive. A bid of $3 million was received over a year ago to make the proper repairs. Harrison notes that since that bid the price of copper has tripled and receiving new bids may not be possible as contractors are shying away from the project because of the volatile rise in copper prices.

The county has until July 2009 to take advantage of $600,000 of matching funds from the State for the roof project; however the $1.2 million of combined funds is not even half of the original bid. Harrison candidly explains the options. "We can go on hands and knees to the State again and beg for the needed funding." In an election year the chances of Pacific County's supplications for increased funding being answered is likely out of the question.

Harrison states, "Another major problem is developing with the stained glass murals above the rotunda in the courthouse. The glass is held together by solder and as water leaks onto the glass it seeps into the solder and weakens the lead in it. The results could be disastrous. Right now we have tarps that funnel the water off the stained glass and into troughs."

Meanwhile in Tacoma, architect Jim Merritt is working on an affordable solution to save the courthouse dome and the nearly century-old structure beneath it. "Merritt is familiar with historical buildings and has worked on several projects with National Registry structures in the past. We are hopeful for some positive feedback from him in a matter of weeks," Harrison explains. "Working with a dome and with a material like copper that expands and contracts so readily makes this project a complex one, but we are hoping to get an affordable solution soon."

Pacific County Commissioner Bud Cuffel says, "We have put money into painting and repairs for the courthouse and we spent $500,000 to replace the windows in a way that met the National Registry requirements. Now we need to find a way to save the copper dome. The courthouse is a treasure for everyone."

Harrison adds, "The aesthetic and historic value to the county is great. To ask our 21,000 citizens to maintain the courthouse is one thing, but to have them provide for reconstruction may be another."

Construction on the building began in 1910 and the courthouse opened June 20, 1911, a year before the Titanic sailed its only voyage and Fenway Park opened for baseball in Boston. The building was erected on Quality Hill overlooking South Bend and the Willapa River at an original cost of $132,000 and was dubbed early on as "The Gilded Palace of Extravagance."

Cuffel and congressman Brian Baird agree when they say, "We do want to repair the roof and we've got to save that courthouse." However, with escalating costs and the uncertainty of a viable solution for the dome's copper roof, it is enough to give taxpayers the shakes.

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