Courthouse Nomination Faces Review: Opposition Vote Surprises Group

Luke Ranker | The Topeka Capital-Journal

A board of Kansas history and architecture experts on Saturday will consider Pottawatomie County’s old courthouse, an aging limestone structure with an uncertain fate, for nomination to the National register of Historic Places and the Register of Historic Kansas Places. The Kansas Historic Sites Board of Review, a governor-appointed board that considers the historical value of sites, will review the 130- year-old Pottawatomie County Courthouse and Jail along with a handful of other locations during a 9 a.m. open meeting in the Museum Classrooms at the Kansas Museum of History. The nomination would open the door for placement on either registry, halting attempts to raze the building, which has divided the county between those who want to save the building and those who think its practical use has ended. A group of vocal activists from across Pottawatomie County opposed to demolition have hoped since this summer the courthouse, first built in 1884 and expanded in the 1890s and the 1920s, would receive an official historic designation. Meanwhile on Monday, the county commission voted to unanimously oppose the historical designation. Ruby Zabel, a member of the group rallying support for the courthouse, said she expects several Pottawatomie County residents will attend Saturday’s review in Topeka. Zabel’s group believes the historic and emotional value of the courthouse outweigh concerns about costs or functionality. Grants to restore the building, which requires new electrical and HVAC systems along with other structural improvements, may be available if it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places or the Register of Historic Kansas Places. Zabel said her group was surprised the commission made an official vote to oppose the designation. “We have to continue to work with them on this,” she said. Chairman Pat Weixelman, whose commission district includes Westmoreland, said the commission is fearful placement on a historic registry would limit the county’s options for either replacing or remodeling the building which is largely unused. After the multi-million-dollar Justice Center to the north opened in 2013, the old courthouse was sidelined. Most county offices are split between the Justice Center and a county office building in a former high school across the street. Besides boxes and other storage, the emergency management and court services offices occupy the ground floor. The county would prefer to demolish the building because, according to Manhattan-based BG Consultants, modernizing the building would coast about $1 million more, or about $3.6 million total. Weixelman said the historic designation, which could carry requirements about building material and techniques, could raise those costs. “We don’t know if this ties our hands for the future,” he said.