Balancing past and present

Published 9:33 am Thursday, February 27, 2014

County courthouses illustrate challenges of historic preservation. (Submitted photo)

County courthouses illustrate challenges of historic preservation. (Submitted photo)

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN—Historic buildings that may today evoke a sentimental desire for preservation would have been readily bulldozed to make way for “progress” in earlier decades. Just as architectural styles rise and fall in popularity, so does American interest in preserving structures that remind us of our past.

The stories behind the two courthouses of the neighboring counties of Berrien and Cass illustrate that tension well. While those stories each have their own complicated nuances, they offer certain parallels that can affect the decisions we make even today.

“I tell my students that some of the only beautiful buildings we have left are our courthouses,” said Rick Brill, professor of Michigan history at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. “They’re really the icons of our past.”

As public buildings, their fates are subject to the collective will, not just the whims of one private person. As such, their destruction or continued existence tells us something about our values and ourselves.

“The United States has a really poor history of preserving history,” Brill said. “Our very creed, and it goes back to our founders, is looking to the future. Our nationality is always being formed anew. It’s almost like the pyramid on the dollar bill—it’s never quite finished.”

On the other hand, there is a group of people who believe in the preservation of the past, and there are times when those people prevail.

The original Berrien County Courthouse, located in Berrien Springs, provides one example of a preservationist victory. That Greek Revival structure still stands today as Michigan’s oldest original courthouse.

According to Kathy Cyr, executive director of the History Center at Courthouse Square, its construction began the same year that Michigan was declared a state. Now preserved as a museum, the 1839 courthouse enjoys an attitude of preservation and protection that dates back to its 1967 purchase by the Berrien County Historical Association.

On the other hand, Berrien County’s second courthouse, a Beaux Arts structure built in 1896 when the county seat moved to St. Joseph, was not so fortunate. According to Bob Myers, curator at the History Center at Courthouse Square, it was demolished at about the same time that the first courthouse was designated as worth saving.

Now, a parking lot can be found where this once-grand building stood at the corner of Port and Church Streets in St. Joseph. A few remnants of that Victorian building do remain—a huge clock face from its tower, a granite pillar, a few other odds and ends.

Ironically, those artifacts are housed in the very building that it replaced: the 1839 Courthouse in Berrien Springs.

Like Berrien County, Cass County has outgrown its courthouse many times over the years. However, the history of the Cass County courthouses offers a different tale, one that is still being written.

According to Jonathan Wuepper, branch manager of the local history branch of the Cass County District Library, Cass’s first courthouse was a log structure that served the county from 1839 to 1842. It was then replaced by a Greek Revival structure that closely resembled Berrien’s 1839 courthouse.

That second courthouse was replaced by a third structure, the Richardsonian Romanesque building that still stands at 110 N. Broadway in Cassopolis. No longer needed, that second courthouse was relocated, used as a movie theater, and eventually demolished in 1968.

Just as Berrien had, the administration of Cass County finally outgrew that turn-of-the-century facility, albeit 30-some years later. That 30 years may have saved the historic Cass County courthouse from the immediate fate that befell the Berrien courthouse because, by then, attitudes towards the preservation of historic buildings had evolved.

“The 1960s were a time when a lot of historical buildings were torn down. People point to the post-war boom and the Space Race. There was a push for modernity that was always a part of us,” Brill said. “That trend does seem to be changing a bit. There’s a little bit of resurgence for history in our state, but preservation is almost at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to history.”

Replaced by “The Campus” in 2003, the historic structure on N. Broadway has stood abandoned for more than a decade after serving Cass County for more than a century.

For many, like County Commissioner Bob Ziliak, “It’s the face of Cass County, so to speak. That’s one reason I want to maintain it. We should try to keep the history of the county in place.”

A decade without climate control has left the building suffering from mold and water damage. According to County Commissioner Roseann Marchetti, the cost of remediating those issues and replacing the roof totals $275,000. Without remediation, the building would eventually need to be scrapped, just as the 1896 Berrien Courthouse was.

“It’s in absolutely super condition structurally. The base shell of the building is perfect,” Ziliak said, “It was remodeled in 1976, but the interior has deteriorated since then.”

The current situation of the 1899 Cass County courthouse is not that unusual.

“There are often two groups of people, one that wants a new building and one that want to preserve the old, and they make a compromise,” Brill said. “The one group gets the new building, and they say they’ll save the old building, but it almost dooms that building because they have no plan for it. It just sits and deteriorates.”

What is unusual is that Cass County Commis-sioners, led by Committee Chairman Ziliak, have returned to the 1899 Courthouse, placing the question of “What is to be done?” squarely in the laps of the voters.

“We’ve distributed questionnaires to a wide range of businesses and government offices, and they have been available online as well,” said Marchetti.

Based on the results of that survey, the county commissioners have just recently decided to go ahead and stabilize the building

Once the will of the people is known regarding the building’s future usage, the Cass County commissioners will be better able to determine the amount of money that will be needed for complete restoration and where that money will come from.

“It’s the people’s building, and we really can’t get started until we know what the people want the building to be used for,” explained Marchetti.

Fortunately, tourists and residents of southwest Michigan can continue to visit two historical sites that offer a view into two very different eras of American architecture and history: the 1839 Courthouse in Berrien Springs and the 1899 Courthouse in Cassopolis.

As Mike Moroz, president of the Underground Railway Society of Cass County said, “It’s more than just a passion for old buildings. It has an economic value. History does sell.”