December 2, 2021

Courthouse repairs add up, architect reports

Makeover for Lady Justice? $7.5M

Photo provided by Cortland County

A worker with Vertical Access, an engineering consultant agency, writes down his findings on the Cortland County Courthouse dome. The consulting agency worked with architect firm Bell & Spina to figure out what repairs need to be done to the exterior of the 96-year-old building.

Lady Justice is worn, cracked in areas and at the end of her copper life expectancy. So is the copper dome on which she sits atop at the 96-year-old Cortland County Courthouse.

The front marble steps have been closed to public use since May 2016. The areaways in front of the basement windows need work to control water and moisture from seeping in, which continues to deteriorate the stone.

The skylights are leaking. The heating piping system could go again, as it did last winter.

And it will cost $5.1 million to repair, reported Syracuse-based architect Bell & Spina in a study of the exterior structure of the courthouse and the heating system, which principal Dennis Spina touched on Thursday during a special Legislature Buildings and Grounds Committee meeting.

“This plan is step one,” said committee Chairman Beau Harbin (D-Cortland). “This is what we needed to be able to start making decisions as to how we’re going to move forward.”

Among the costs:

  • Heating plant replacement — $1.8 million
  • Air conditioning — $855,000.
  • Dome/cupola restoration — $760,000.
  • Entry stair restoration — $695,000.
  • Skylight replacement — $390,000.
  • Masonry restoration — $233,000.
  • Entrance door replacement — $80,000.
  • Areaway restoration — $238,000.
  • Ventilation system repairs — $57,000.

“I think they’re fairly realistic (numbers) they don’t have a lot of fluffing,” Spina said. “We took a long-term approach because I don’t think you’re going to sell your courthouse. Your dome roof has lasted 100 years, we’ll put a 100-year to 150-year roof system back on. You do it once, you do it right, that’s our approach.”

Spina did note the stone on the building is in good shape but needs to be cleaned and that the membrane of the roof is in good condition.

But how to pay for it? And what comes first?

Spina said the top priorities, in order:

  • Entry stair, areaway and door restoration and replacement.
  • Dome and copula restoration.
  • Masonry restoration.

Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) asked whether Lady Justice could be sold to help defray costs, but Spina said the the copper statue is painted with lead paint and is not salvageable, Bell and Spina had replicas created for a similar restoration of the Onondaga County Courthouse. Other legislators pointed out the Cortland County Historical Society would likely take the item.

Did you know?

  • The lady justice which sits atop the Cortland Courthouse dome faces north toward Onondaga County, from which Cortland County was formed from in 1808. She weighs 400 pounds and is made of copper.
  • The courthouse sits on the sight of the former Cortland Normal School, now SUNY Cortland, which burned in 1919.
  • The Beaux Arts-style building was designed by architect James Riely Gordon it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Gordon also designed the Texas Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and built more than 60 courthouses in his career, many in Texas.

Source: Eric Mulvihill, the clerk of the Legislature and county historian

Harbin suggested involving Emergency Response Director Scott Roman because the courthouse is a criminal justice facility “that FEMA, Homeland Security are really keen on making sure that, in the event of an issue, that the judiciary system remains intact.”

“Scott is very adept at finding money,” said Legislator George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer).

Eric Mulvihill, the clerk of the Legislature and county historian, will consult with Thoma Development about potential next steps and costs to seek grants.

Mulvihill questioned whether the county could legally seek donations for the project.

“I’m not saying we have to cough this up this minute and write a check, but it’s giving us an idea,” Harbin said. “The focus of this is to help us put a proposal together to the state to find ways to defray costs through grant money. It’s a big number, but we’re looking at ways to go through this.”

Mulvihill said the county will celebrate the centennial of the building in 2024; he would like to see it restored by then, if possible.

“So that we can have that landmark continue to serve as a focal point in the community for the next 100 years,” he said.