Outlook good for old Cass County courthouse

Published 8:39 am Friday, December 27, 2013

The former Cass County courthouse, which is located next to the county annex in downtown Cassopolis, has been mothballed since 2004 after the opening of the current courthouse on M-63. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

The former Cass County courthouse, which is located next to the county annex in downtown Cassopolis, has been mothballed since 2004 after the opening of the current courthouse on M-63. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Once the proud symbol of the Cass County justice system, the halls of Cassopolis’ downtown courthouse have been silent for nearly a decade, its doors closed to the public.

The old courthouse, which was built in 1889, was mothballed in 2004 after the county opened its current courthouse outside the village on M-62. While at one time it appeared that demolition might have been the only fate in store for the more than century-old structure, both the Cass County government and a group of concerned citizens are looking into solutions to preserve it.

Throughout the course of this year, discussion on how to restore the old building has been a reoccurring item on the agenda of the county’s board of commissioners. During their most recent meeting, Commissioner Robert Ziliak reported to the rest of the board that the county estimates it would need to spend $275,000 to get the facility up and running once again, based on a report filed by Maintenance Supervisor Dave Dickey.

“If we don’t have the money in the budget for this, I think we need to find a way to do so,” Ziliak said. “This is much more manageable than the previous $2 million price tag we had from a previous estimate.”

The money spent on the project would go toward modernizing the building’s infrastructure, such as upgrading the building’s lighting, boiler and water softener. Work must also be completed on a few structural elements, such as the building’s roof.

However, around $75,000 must be spent on perhaps the most critical factor holding back the reopening of the courthouse: the infestation of mold that has been spreading since the building was shuttered nine years ago.

“This should never have happened, that the building got into such a condition that mold was allowed to grow inside it,” Ziliak said.

The commissioner said that the county should act as soon as it can to remove the mold, as the problem will only get worse with time.

Officials with the county government aren’t the only ones who have shown interest in preserving the courthouse. A few citizens from throughout the county have spoken out against possible demolition of the structure in recent months.

“Myself and a few other citizens decided it was time to voice our opinion on the building since there were rumors about being demolished,” said Mike Moroz, the head of the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County.

Moroz said he has been involved with efforts to save the courthouse for the last several months, regularly attending commission meetings and providing input into how the county can save the century-old structure.

“It’s an anchor,” Moroz said. “It’s an anchor for this county and an anchor for downtown Cassopolis.”

Moroz and his organization have a keen interest in seeing the county’s historic structures endure, he said. The society has spent the last several years restoring the historic James E. Bonine House in Vandalia, transforming it from its former dilapidated state into a vintage Cass County destination.

Moroz, who lives in Dowagiac, is no stranger to historic structures. His own residence is a restored 1877 Italian brick house.

“I think these old buildings tell a story,” Moroz said. “We can look at the history behind them, who was motivated to build them, who designed them, how they were built. You could never build these types of buildings today.”

One of the possible solutions the county was presented for handling the courthouse was demolishing the building itself while restoring the clock tower, the most prominent feature of the building. However, Moroz said that such a solution would serve an injustice to the county’s citizens.

“This building has a legacy, a legend,” Moroz said. “There’s not just a sign that says this building once stood here, it still stands here today.”

One of the hurdles that the county still faces is finding a possible use for the structure if they proceed with restoration. Among the possible uses that Moroz and other citizens have suggested is turning it into a wedding chapel or a cultural center for the county.

“When most people hear about this big, empty building with mold growing inside it, they run away screaming,” Moroz said. “However, the public should take a look at it and let their imagination run wild. I’m sure everyone could come up with a possible use for this building.”

For Moroz, the county’s renewed interest in sparing the wrecking ball has given him hope that the old courthouse’s halls will spring to life again, he said.

“I’m very proud of this board for allowing public input,” he said. “Because of that input, we’ve gained a lot of ground in the last six months. Though not all members are on board and certain, they are willing to listen and work with us.”