In less than two weeks, Alpine County’s historic old courthouse will be gone. This building was designed by Frederick de Longchamps, a very famous architect of his day. And the people of Alpine County have always been very proud of this building, so proud they got it placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Yes, the outside stone walls will still be there – most of them, anyway. But here’s what is changing:
■ A section of the wall in the rear of the building will be ripped out, and a new glass “connector” will attach the old courthouse to the Administration building.
■ The original old judge’s bench, the old oak bar rail, and the jury box will be ripped out – all “just furniture,” according to planning staff.
■ The interior of the courtroom will be flipped, so the all-new judge’s bench and bar and replacement jury box will go on the opposite side of the room.
■ Seating will also be flipped. And yes, we’ll lose seating space to make a wider aisle.
■ The original old interior stairway will be torn out, so there is no indoor connection between upstairs and downstairs of the courthouse.
■ In place of the stairway, new bathrooms will be built, downstairs for the District Attorney and victims and witnesses and one upstairs “for the use of judges and staff only”, we are told, but we also hear that staff has been advised that they will have to go to through the connector to the Administration building along with the public to tend to their restroom needs.
■ The front steps will no longer be used by the public, and the front double door will stay locked except for special occasions. Those doors will have crash bars so people can use them to get out in case of emergency. And the public will no longer be able to view the beautiful original tile work in the entry and hallways, except by appointment or invitation.
■ The DA and her staff will reportedly be housed in the basement and will have only one exit what with the stairway gone. To get to court the DA will have to go out that double door, around the front of the courthouse, through two parking lots, into the Administration building and through the connector section to get to the courtroom. How’s that for a plan?
How can this happen to a building that’s on the National Register? It took two sad forces: lack of public awareness, and a Board of Supervisors determined to rush this project through with as little public knowledge as possible.
The board and the judges had a laudable goal: to increase the security and accessibility of the building. The mechanism which they chose was abominable. You don’t treat historic buildings this way. And the public had a right to know far more than they were told.
Last week, hardly anyone showed up at the Supervisors’ Special Meeting to contest the latest version of this abominable plan. The proverbial wrecker’s ball that will change this building forever is perhaps two weeks away. And – typical for this project -- the public only found out last Tuesday about the plan to destroy the old oak furnishings of the courtroom itself.
According to self-serving statements by County staff, we “should have known” this was happening. However, this project has been a public relations black hole since the beginning. People didn’t know then. People still don’t know. And the plans kept changing, springing new surprises on an unsuspecting public that was trying to pay attention.
If you care about preserving Alpine’s historic building, please show up at the board meeting 9 a.m. Tuesday and use your three minutes of “public comment” time to tell the Board what you think of this “remodel” of the historic courthouse. Ask them if they’ve spoken to the contractor about ways to do things better. And sound off about the fact that you weren’t fairly and reasonably informed. It’s not too late until the wrecking ball goes to work.
They may still rip the heart out of this historic building. But at least it won’t be because of public apathy.
Nancy Thornburg is a Markleeville resident.