courthouse

Photo courtesy of Kathryn Lair

The nasty scabs of red paint and the veils of scaffolding are gone. The Ouray County Courthouse stands naked as the day she was born, at the corner of 4th Street and Sixth Avenue in downtown Ouray, her tender bricks stripped bare and blushing in the sunlight.

Inside, ancient crumbling plaster walls have been fastidiously repaired, worn carpeting torn out and wood floors restored to gleaming splendor. The courtroom where John Wayne once famously held forth as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the 1968 movie classic “True Grit” glows in freshly painted hues of taupe and tangerine as sunshine drifts in through tall arched windows glazed with wavy glass. 

Strip-teased, repainted and replastered, the long-awaited remodel has given Ouray County’s civic home a new lease on life — and not a moment too soon. The old gal was starting to look a little shabby, to be honest, prior to the renovation. 

With her ugly paint job, peeling shingles, broken concrete steps and patched-together portico that tipped away from the face of the building, you could almost excuse the tourist with the outsized RV who brazenly parked right out in front of the building a few summers ago, taking up at least eight parking spots along a slanted sidewalk that was intended to be reserved for county business. 

“I thought this building was abandoned!” the driver protested when a Ouray Police Department deputy sauntered over with a parking ticket. Hardly. 

In fact, the courthouse had been occupied nonstop ever since it was built in 1888. When repairs were needed, they took place in piecemeal fashion around the business of the county that continued to relentlessly, efficiently unfold within its walls. 

Like the African violets that once lined the north-facing windowsills of the old judge’s chambers upstairs, the business of the growing county had become potbound in its container, not to mention overwatered once or twice (you could still find traces of mud inside the antique furniture in the basement from the big flood of 1968). 

In short, this old courthouse was on her last legs. But her bones were still good. And her soul was pure. She was well loved by the people that she served. It was time to fix her up. 

THE BIG JOB

It cost $35,000, and took eight months, to build the Ouray County Courthouse back in 1888. It cost $8.2 million, and took 14 months, to renovate the building 130 years later. 

The goal of the Ouray County Courthouse project was to bring back the look and feel of the historic era of both the interior and exterior of the building, enhancing and celebrating the building’s strengths while quietly shoring up its deficits and providing modern, efficient upgrades to bring it into the 21st century.  

The majority of funding came from a lease purchase agreement financed by a .55 percent sales tax, approved by 59 percent of Ouray County voters in the November 2017 election.

Not everyone was crazy about the idea of renovating the historic structure. Some newcomers to the community thought the money would be better spent on constructing a brand new courthouse in Ridgway, where the county is growing fastest. Others argued that county officials should focus more on fixing roads rather than preserving and restoring the aging courthouse. 

A Courthouse Committee comprised of longtime locals who loved their historic civic center convened to advocate for the renovation, and patiently pointed out to naysayers that the county has a mandate to care for its buildings and its roads. 

After the sales tax question passed, county officials won an additional $832,075 from the state’s Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission and $1 million from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to help pay for the project. 

General contractor FCI Constructors Inc. was hired in 2018 through a request for proposal process, and worked with Charles Cunnife Architects of Aspen to finalize building plans and pricing. Construction began in February 2019.

Project manager Shawn Merrill’s job was to thread a tricky needle, maintaining historical accuracy while addressing building stability and health and safety issues. The sequencing of the project was a juggling act, involving every conceivable construction trade: masons, plumbers, electricians, duct workers, window specialists, plasterers, dry wallers and painters. 

For Merrill and his crew, who typically work on larger commercial projects, it was exciting and fun to restore an 1888 building that had never been treated to a really nice, modern upgrade. Sure, the courthouse had undergone a few small remodels over the years, but nothing that really enhanced the character or the functionality of the structure. 

“You don’t get many opportunities to work on something that old and retrofit it for the 21st century,” Merrill said.

There was a lot to get done, and just 14 months to do it. At the peak of the project late last summer, up to 80 workers swarmed the site at any given time. 

The work itself was pretty straightforward for a seasoned commercial contractor such as Merrill (which also oversaw recent remodeling projects at the Ouray Public School and the Ouray Hot Springs Pool). The hardest part was establishing a schedule, getting buy-in and acceptance from myriad subcontractors and then maintaining that schedule while making up for lost time after the original October 2018 start date slipped by. 

The first order of business was to get San Miguel Power Association to move an electrical transformer that was in the footprint of the planned sheriff’s annex expansion. After that, the crew got started with selective salvaging inside the courthouse, pulling off doors, stair railings and other decorative elements that wouldn’t have held up well to a year’s worth of messy construction.

Then, they demolished anything else that was going to go away — various walls and floors, and a little storage building tacked onto the south side of courthouse. 

In the meantime, a team of brick restoration specialists from Salt Lake City swathed the exterior in scaffolding and started stripping the lead-laden red paint off of the exterior masonry, built of native Ouray “ballpark” bricks from the old Carney brickyard that used to be located where Fellin Park is today. The bricks were soft and had to be handled with the utmost care. 

“It was not the blow-and-go production that most masons are accustomed to,” Merrill said. But after 10 months of painstaking work, the unveiled brick exterior turned out to be one of the most striking features of the renovation.

A 2000-square-foot addition to the courthouse on the southeast corner was built to house new administrative offices. The architecture of the addition mirrors historic elements of original structure, while also incorporating a more modern aesthetic. 

The area that used to house the Sheriff’s Office in the old 1898 jail building behind the courthouse became a secondary courtroom, judges’ chambers and a modern new jury room complete with a small kitchenette. Downstairs in the old jail, the county commissioners will retain their old jail cell meeting room that still has bars on the windows, but is now updated with a secondary egress.

A courthouse annex across the alley that used to house the county assessor’s office has been completely remodeled and expanded by a couple thousand square feet, becoming the new Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Medical Services headquarters, with additional storage space for old county archives.

The historic courthouse structure itself got new water lines, new power, new fire extinguishing systems, new heating and ventilation, and lots of 21st century data communications upgrades that would have bewildered the building’s original inhabitants.

In between all of that, Merrill’s crew and subcontractors restored interior woodwork — doors, wainscoting, trims, casings — and clad the roof with new fire-retardant shingles that mimic the historic cedar shingles the building originally had.

Local woodworker Joe Calhoun made doors and crafted pieces of replacement molding throughout the building. Artists were brought in to do the faux-grain “Chicago Pine” painting on replacement woodwork and to recreate historic stenciling details in the courtroom. 

“You can’t tell what was historic and what is new,” Merrill said.

The courtroom’s original spectator seating — iron chairs affixed to boards that are connected to each other to be easily moved — got repaired for new generations of courtroom spectators, complete with hooks on the backs of the seats for coats and shelves underneath for cowboy hats.

Additional renovations and repairs included foundation systems improvements; drainage mitigation and water damage repair; sidewalk and landscape improvements; enhanced ADA compliance; and rebuilding the main entrance porch to mimic its original construction.

“There were no structural problems, which is pretty amazing,” Merrill said. “This place was built to last.” But as the project got well underway, workers did uncover a few skeletons in the closet — and the attic — and the basement. 

“The plaster walls were a nightmare,” Merrill groaned. “They were so weak and unbonded. It was hard to get compatible material.” He ended up sending samples to a historic plaster specialist in Chicago for materials analysis, and found a guy in Pagosa Springs who was able to marry the new and the old plaster systems. 

Up in the attic, where there had been some fire damage over a century ago, workers sandwiched massive old timber trusses with modern laminate lumber by way of a construction technique known as “sistering.” Down in the basement, they unearthed a historic mote feature that had been filled in with dirt and cement after the 1968 flood, to reveal the original windows and foundations of the building. 

While the renovation was underway, county offices scattered to several temporary locations in various corners of the county. The sheriff and emergency manager moved into the Hotel Ouray. EMS offices relocated to the Ridgway Fire Department facility, while also maintaining their ambulance bay space in Ouray.

The county, district and municipal courts set up shop at Ouray’s Chipeta Emporium Building. The county assessor, clerk and recorder, treasurer, public trustee, human resources director, information technology, county administrator and administrative staff were housed at Village Square West in Ridgway. 

Now that the job is done, they can all move back into their proper home, as structurally beautiful today as it was the day it opened in 1888. 

“We started with millions of holes and scratches and dings. To bring this building back from 130 years of being beat up feels pretty satisfying, “ Merrill said. “I hope it lasts another 130 years. We are really proud of it.”

Merrill feels fortunate that the renovation was nearing completion and down to just a handful of subcontractors by the time the coronavirus pandemic began to unfold this spring, since social distancing would have been nearly impossible to enforce on such a project. 

‘OUR LEGACY PROJECT’

After the final walk-through in late April, county facilities manager Will Clapsadl paced through the echoey, empty, strangely-familiar-yet-unfamiliar rooms, wearing a camouflage facemask, preparing for staff and elected officials to move back in. 

There were definitely moments when he was skeptical the project could be contained to its 16-month schedule. “Shawn was unflappable,” Clapsadl said. “I am impressed by how he juggled everything. And the subcontractors were great.”

Clapsadl was especially enamored of the brick masons. “They were out on the scaffolding in the worst conditions, cracking jokes and singing songs,” he said. “I would always ask them, ‘Are you guys done yet?’ And they’d say, ‘Just a few more months!’ They were a joy to work with.  They were fantastic dudes.”

Over the years of his employment with the county, Clapsadl has been charged with keeping this old courthouse going, whatever it takes. From fixing roof leaks to stoking the old coal-fired furnace in the middle of the night to shoveling the sidewalks after snowstorms to keep the slanted sidewalks from turning into icy death traps. 

Now, the building has beautiful modern archival storage, fire-rated shingles and heated sidewalks.

After decades of making do, everything is finally finding its proper place. 

EMS and the Sheriff’s Office are happily settled into new quarters where the County Assessor’s Office used to be, and the County Assessor will soon be moving back into the courthouse with the other elected officials where she belongs, while the county administrator and her staff will be shifting into their brand new sparkling quarters. As for himself, Clapsadl is excited to be moving into a corner workshop in the new portion of the building — a definite step up from his first office, which was a closet under the basement stairs. 

From the HVAC, to the plumbing and wiring and fire suppression, “It’s such a relief to have a modern, functioning system,” Clapsadl grinned behind his mask. “It’s exciting getting everyone back into a normal schedule, and a normal routine,” not to mention having the porch roof level for the first time in decades. 

“This is our legacy project,” he said. “It still hasn’t sunk in yet; it’s pretty cool.” 

With that, Clapsadl recruited a helper to head outside and figure out how to operate the new, high-tech flagpole. Together, they hoisted a brand new American flag and Colorado flag in front of the newly renovated courthouse for the very first time. The wind caught the flags, and unfurled them across the bright blue sky.