Our Views: Avoid repeat problems and remove tower at Rock County Courthouse now

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In hindsight, it was financially foolish to build a tower serving no purpose other than aesthetics when Rock County expanded and remodeled its courthouse in the late 1990s.

Not surprisingly, Wisconsin's harsh winters have taken a toll on the hollow, exposed structure. By 2011, moisture and freeze-thaw cycles were flaking exposed bricks. The county roped off the area, paid for temporary repairs and asked for an engineer's advice.

That brings more bad news. Repair options, including those that would place a new roof over the tower to reduce weather damage, range from $451,000 to almost $1 million. Most options would drastically alter the tower's look. Adding a roof could invite pigeons to roost and cause problems with falling rain, snow and ice.

Costs to demolish the tower and replace the roof at its base range from $264,000 to $286,000.

Demolition sounds like the sensible choice.

Architect Kenton Peters drew the courthouse's modern design with curved roof, balconies and columns to mimic architectural features of the neighborhood's historic homes. County General Services Manager Rob Leu points out that the tower is reminiscent of those on the county's first courthouses, built in 1842 and 1871. Leu remembers Peters arguing passionately that the tower was architecturally significant to the package.

Jackie Wood owns a historic home within view of the courthouse property. She has led efforts to restore the chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery and preserve the historic gas station adjacent to the police department. She's past president of the Rock County Historical Society's board. She also served on the Rock County Board when the courthouse project was approved and recalls being reluctant to support the tower.

She can see both sides of the tower issue today, but adds: “I've never really cared for how it looked. I never thought it added anything to the building, really. The whole thing to me was something unnecessary.”

Counters Leu: “When does a building become architecturally significant?”

After the project was completed, Leu remembers Peters suggesting that comments, pro and con, start to create architectural significance.

Even after discussing it with Leu this week, Wood leans toward tearing it down. She thinks the courthouse's modern design has overall appeal and masked the ugly boxlike design of the previous courthouse. Still, she says, some neighbors have never appreciated its architecture. Interviewed Tuesday, she had heard no support from anyone but Leu for saving the tower. Some people express surprise when she tells them it serves as neither a bell tower nor a cellphone tower. Instead, its sole purpose is architectural appeal.

Yes, it was designed as a nod to Janesville's history. But it's not historic, and it has no historical integrity given that the most recent courthouse had no such tower.

“I'm for historic preservation, but I don't think this is a question of historic preservation,” Wood admits.

Remove it, and you forever change Janesville's skyline. Fix it now, however, and expect that repair costs will come home to roost again and again in decades ahead.

As a saying older than the tower advises, don't throw good money after bad. Rock County and Janesville have plenty of pressing needs. Investing in a pricey Band-Aid to save the courthouse tower isn't one of them.

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