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119-year-old courthouse needs new roof, heat, electrical upgrade

"Do you see the water dripping down the soffits and it's going through underneath?" asked county commissioner Dan Stacey.

Constructed in 1900, the old courthouse remained county headquarters until about 1975.

It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the nation's official list of properties deemed worthy of preservation. The "classical revival," turn-of-the-century structure was placed in the register in March 1984.

The county owns the two-story, brick building and leases its to the Hubbard County Historical Society, which in turn, subleases space to the Nemeth Art Center. Both are nonprofit organizations.

"To have this building restored — number one, just to protect what's within it because we have some amazing things — would be worth having a thoughtful discussion over," Hubbard County coordinator Eric Nernes said.

In 2015, the county board signed a letter of support for a Minnesota State Historical Society Cultural and Heritage grant. They agreed to provide $5,000 in matching funds, pending approval of the grant, with the understanding that the Hubbard County Historical Society would also chip in $5,000. The 2015 renovation project called for rebuilding the cupola, including an observation deck, and adding an elevator to provide handicap accessibility as well as house a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system for the entire building.

An architectural firm conducted a facility assessment in 2016, reviewing the structural, mechanical and electrical integrity of the building. While the original masonry, tin ceilings, wooden stairs, glass, windows and doors remain in good condition, the 2016 report highlighted several electrical and life safety code deficiencies and other areas in acute need of repair.

Nerness said another architect walked through the building last year and found a "sister building."

"There's one that's almost identical to this at a county in North Dakota. This building was designed by a Milton E. Beebe, who was a very famous architect who left New York after a brutal divorce. He also designed the Old Main at Concordia College, so that's near and dear to me. He designed a bunch of buildings in Fargo that they now call the Beebe Historic District."

Nicolle LaFleur, the new executive director for the Nemeth Art Center, is scheduled to attend the county board's April 9 work session.

Krueger said they've recently talked about doing the restoration in phases. The first phase would be the roof and the second the electrical upgrade. "The cost for each of those would be $200,000," he said.

Minnesota Historical Society grants are competitive, Krueger added. While not required, "they do highly recommend local buy-in. That can come from either fundraising efforts or the county itself, as part of its budget," he said, adding the funds or county commitment need to be "in hand" before applying for the grant.

Nerness said a possible next step is getting environmental controls back into the old courthouse to keep it heated during the winter. "There are oil paintings in there that are 600 years old. It's significant," he said.

Krueger agreed those are valuable paintings, and LaFleur did say the Nemeth Art Center would be forced to move the art collection elsewhere if water begins to leak. "Which means, what happens to that building then?" he asked, adding if the building is empty, it will be at county cost.

Nerness noted that the State Historical Society is familiar with the old courthouse. "It is in excellent structural form. They are very interested in wanting to help us make sure it gets preserved," he said.

Prior to leaving, former Nemeth executive director Michael Dagen recommended a 10 percent match, Nerness said. "I don't know if that's realistic or not."

Krueger said 10 percent of $200,000 isn't that much. "The more buy-in you get from the community, the better it is, the more you go up the competitive ladder."

County commissioner Char Christensen suggested that someone could lead a community fundraising effort.

County commissioner Dan Stacey said the art and history center is "a secret gem."

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