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Fire closes courts at historic courthouse

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A fire heavily damaged historic Jefferson County Courthouse Wednesday evening. Remodeling and restoration to the courthouse and cupola were completed yesterday and bunting made by women in the Indiana Department of Correction was scheduled to be hung Friday. The fire has displaced the offices and courts located inside.

The first 911 call came in to dispatchers at 6:18 p.m., said Madison Mayor Tim Armstrong. Investigators are still on the scene, but it looked like the fire may have begun in the dome or roof area. He urged people not to jump to conclusions and let investigators do their job.

At a press conference this morning, Jefferson County Commissioner Julie Berry described Wednesday as "the best of times, and the worst of times," alluding to the Charles Dickens' classic "A Tale of Two Cities." She said the courthouse looked the best it ever had in her lifetime - with nearly $175,000 invested in renovations - but then later that day it was the worst of times when the fire broke out.

The third floor had a lot of damage; the second floor had water damage and some fire damage; and the first floor and basement had water damage, it was reported at the press conference. The city hopes to salvage and restore as many documents as it can and had made backups to many documents like marriage licenses and records.

County commissioners and council members met at 8 a.m. to discuss where to relocate the offices and courts located in the courthouse. The courts are closed today while details are being worked out, Armstrong said. The city offered the courts its council chambers because it's set up similar to a courtroom, and the Madison school system has offered use of a school located about a block and a half away from the courthouse. He said neighboring Switzerland and Jennings counties also have offered use of their facilities. Officials hope to determine where the courts will be relocated by later today.

The courthouse was built around 1854 or 1856, said the mayor, and it was to be a focal point for the city's bicentennial celebration this summer. This is at least the second fire to happen in the courthouse, he said. While the city is saddened by this fire, he said they will rebuild the courthouse.

Kathryn Dolan, public information officer for the Indiana Supreme Court, said the high court is expecting a petition from the Jefferson County judges and clerk requesting Administrative Rule 17 relief. If the Supreme Court grants the petition, it would allow the courts to suspend deadlines related to civil and criminal cases for a period of time.

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