If the Old County Courthouse can be likened to a grand dame, then renovations have given it a most rejuvenating face lifting.
Once considered unsafe in the event of an earthquake, the old courthouse has been reinforced to withstand an 8.3-magnitude quake.
To reinforce the building, the floors were tied to the walls, the walls were thickened with a concrete-like material and the rectangular core of the angular building was tied to the several walls that project from it to hold all the walls together better, project manager Evan Krewson said.
The work had been completed by the time a 6.7 quake hit Coalinga in May of 1983, and the building's seismic consultant said later that based on what he learned from Coalinga, the courthouse reinforcements were "overdesigned by 50%," Krewson said.
"Which means, if there's a building you want to be in during an earthquake, that's it."
The team that guided the restoration--chiefly Krewson; Jane Gerber, chairwoman of the Orange County Historical Commission; Don Dobmeier, past chairman; Lecil Slaback, a member of the commission; Rob Selway, county historical programs chief, and staff members from Supervisor Roger R. Stanton's office--"put a lot of love into it," Krewson said.
The careful attention to detail shows.
This was not a project that simply went to the lowest bidder. Krewson, the commission and the hired restoration specialist picked former court reporter Slaback's memory and pored over old news photographs from trials to examine furniture, light fixtures, staircase ironwork and everything else within the courthouse walls or hanging on them, then tried to reproduce them.
For example, the new glass globes surrounding the bulbs in the courthouse light fixtures are open on top because the original fixtures were designed when gaslight was used. The switch plates are of the old-fashioned, push-button variety.
Next to the judge's bench sits a reproduction of the old court reporter's desk, which became obsolete and was eliminated when Slaback stopped taking shorthand and began using a machine to record testimony. And the carpeting in the museum room was specially selected for its muted hues and sandstone-red accents.
A real bonus was discovered when workers pulled up industrial-style carpeting that had been added to the stairs during alterations in 1965 and found the original, distinctive blue-and-white tile on the staircase landing. The carpeting actually "was a blessing to us. It prevented any further damage to the tile," Krewson said. In addition, that discovery enabled the restorers to re-tile the foyer to match.
Originally, there was no elevator in the courthouse, but one has been added to allow the handicapped to explore the building, although people will have to look twice to find it. The elevator is custom-designed "to fit the ambiance yet let people know it's not historically part of the building," Krewson said.
Some things didn't have to be changed. Most of the furniture in the courtroom is original. The magnificent but intimidating judge's bench has been there since the beginning, as has the oak jury box, so large that it extends into the doorway to the jury room. Even the marble stalls and chrome-plated nickel piping in the men's room are original.
"It was what we all grew up thinking a courtroom should look like--big, spacious and full of marvelously carved furniture," said Santa Ana lawyer Joe A. Dickerson, a former deputy district attorney.
And if Krewson had his way, one more thing at the old Courthouse would be restored--the 135-foot cupola that was removed after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. A 1984 study said that rebuilding the decorative courthouse tower was feasible and estimated that the project would cost from $413,000 to $724,000, depending on the materials used. Currently, there are no plans to rebuild the cupola, but the study is on hand should that change.
Although close to a decade has passed and millions of dollars have been spent to restore the courthouse, the time and money were well-spent, according to Krewson.