Cassopolis resident presents alternative idea for courthouse restoration

Published 8:49 am Friday, February 7, 2014

The old county courthouse in downtown Cassopolis has been a fixture of Robert Wurster’s life for as long he can remember.

Wurster, 73, has spent nearly his entire life traveling to his family’s summer home on Diamond Lake, which his parents built in 1937. He has failed to make his yearly pilgrimage only twice in his life, while he was living in Europe.2-7Courthouse

“On Memorial Day, we would move from Mishawaka, and it was the happiest day of the year for me,” Wurster said. “The saddest day of the year was when we had to move back in the fall.”

As a child, Cassopolis was the focus of the attention for he and his siblings, Wurster said. While they spent most of their time shopping or visiting the local movie theater, the visage of the downtown courthouse was indelibly etched into his childhood memories.

“The courthouse is the highest thing in Cass County,” Wurster said. “It’s just about the highest structure around.”

Today, Wurster, a retired professor with the Loyola University School of Medicine, lives in a suburb outside of Chicago, though he still spends his summers in Cassopolis.

Naturally, when Wurster heard the news about the possibility of restoring the currently mothballed courthouse, he jumped at the opportunity to provide input.

Working with then County Administrator Louis Csokasy, Wurster drafted up more than 15 different drawings last year of his vision of the future of the courthouse. One removed the “courthouse” from the property completely, leaving only the structure’s high standing clock tower.

“My idea is to take the tower and make that the new focus of the building,” Wurster said. “I think it would change the atmosphere of downtown Cassopolis.”

Wurster believes that such a plan is feasible to implement, due to the fact that the foundation of the tower is separate from the rest of the structure. The space that is currently occupied by the courthouse would be converted to a public park, which could be used to host musical or theater performances.

“I think it is an interesting idea that would attract attention,” Wurster said.

Wurster’s interest in the courthouse dates back before he put pen to paper. He looked at using the building as a new home for the Barn Swallow Theatre, which burned down in 2004, a year after the courthouse was closed. County officials allowed him to tour the building.

“The exterior was maintained very well,” he said. “However, inside, the ceiling was falling and wires were everywhere. It was in pretty sad shape.”

By preserving only the tower, Wurster believes that the county will be able to better manage potential renovation costs. At the moment, county officials estimate they will need to spend $275,000 up front to remove mold and keep the structure in stable condition before proceeding with additional restoration work.

“It takes money to operate a large building like that,” Wurster said. “People like the idea of reopening the building, but there’s a cost to that.”

The retired professor said that by preserving only the clock tower, the county could reduce the cost of utilities, maintenance and other annual charges. They would also not have to worry about finding a use for the currently vacant space, he said.

While he believes his idea is sound and a pragmatic approach to the issue, he would be elated if the county is able to find a way to fund and maintain a complete restoration of the courthouse.

“I would support it with my hands and my pocket book, however I can,” he said.