More than two years after an accidental fire destroyed the Jefferson County Courthouse roof and heavily damaged the upper floor, those displaced by the fire have moved back into the landmark.
Several years ago, nearly $175,000 was spent renovating the courthouse, and on May 20, 2009, the day renovations to the courthouse were finished, smoke and flames were seen in that evening coming out of the courthouse roof. The fire was later ruled accidental, the result of contractors soldering copper downspouts and gutters on the roof.
The offices and courts were displaced, with the third floor suffering the most damage due to its proximity to the fire, but water damage was an issue throughout the building. Jefferson Circuit and Superior courts relocated into separate buildings in Madison, Ind. The records housed in the courthouse were backed up electronically up to the day of the fire, and many paper files were able to be saved through a freezing process and restoration.
The Circuit and Superior courts, clerk’s office, and the offices of the assessor, auditor, recorder, treasurer, county commissioners, and IT department began their move back into the restored courthouse the first week of August. Jefferson County Commissioner Julie Berry said the county used Department of Correction inmates from the Henryville Correctional Unit to move the offices from their temporary locations. The move was supervised by the county highway department and saved the county more than $20,000, she estimated. All offices are now up and running.
The outside will look nearly the same, as the courthouse is situated in downtown Madison, which is a historic district and has certain regulations for buildings in the area. But there were changes made inside, such as making the building more energy efficient and the incorporation of security measures. Because of the damage to the third floor, which houses the Circuit Court, officials were able to reconfigure the layout and convert the area designated for the library into a third courtroom.
Circuit Judge Ted Todd noted that thanks to computers, the courts don’t really need a library anymore. Now, the courts can utilize that space as a third courtroom when a senior judge comes onboard while Judge Todd is on a jury trial. It also allows Judge Todd to use the room when Superior Court needs a courtroom for a 12-person jury. The Superior Court, housed on the second floor, remains pretty much the same as before the fire as load-bearing walls prevented reconfiguration. That court only has a jury room big enough to handle a six-person jury.
The fire also uncovered hidden plaster molding in the Circuit courtroom. It was covered up by a lower ceiling, and officials hired a local craftsman to recreate what was missing, Berry said.
This would be the second time since the fire the Circuit Court has moved. They were in one office for two months just after the fire, and then moved into another location until the renovations were complete, said Judge Todd.
“We had a windowless room, it was sort of debilitating,” he said, noting how happy staff is to be back in the courthouse. “Everybody has a smile on their face and feeling good. It’s nice to be back.”
Now, officials will celebrate the reopening of the courthouse with a rededication ceremony Aug. 26. Berry said it will be a tribute to the volunteer fire departments that helped save the courthouse. Judge Todd and Superior Judge Alison Frazier will be on hand to speak, as well as Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony to “open up” the courthouse.
Tours will be held Aug. 27, as well as an open house for those interested in seeing the renovated courthouse.