As art-lovers and onlookers winded the staircase of the Finney County Courthouse, the newest stop on Garden City Arts’ First Friday Art Walk, they walked through a building largely transformed from what it was five years ago.
Since 2014, the building has been the subject of more than $3.5 million — $2.8 million in the last year alone — in renovations, with about $110,000 covered by court fees, $210,000 by leftover Law Enforcement Center bond revenue and the rest by the Finney County budget, said Court Administrator Kurtis Jacobs, who helped spearhead the projects.
While the remodel is expected to carry on through 2021, the ultimate and immediate result is not only a more structurally sound building, but also a landmark and community focal point Finney County residents can visit, access and be proud of, Jacobs said.
The building, first opened in 1930, had long suffered a series of infrastructure problems, Jacobs said. Toilets didn’t flush, doors jammed, breakers burst frequently, and rain flooded through leaky windows. The law library was perpetually locked out of fear the decaying ceiling plaster-work would drop on heads. The back wall of the largest courtroom was at risk of falling down, making the room unusable.
And so, little by little starting in 2014, with the firm backing of the county commission, the courthouse started to address the issues.
The law library, once stuffed past the point of use with old books and logs, was largely cleared out and remodeled into a conference room and training space. The court clerk’s office was expanded and the front outdoor steps replaced.
The windows were recaulked, electrical system bolstered, parking lot improved, ceilings repaired, fiber optic and more computers installed, fire alarms and heating and air conditioning systems replaced and lights upgraded, Jacobs said. Almost all work was done by local contractors, he said.
“We started doing things that would make the building more useful to us, and that took a couple years...” Jacobs said. “And then we started talking about what do we do to make the building look good to preserve the integrity of the building. It’s a landmark, and we wanted it to be respected in the community as a landmark.”
Besides remodels of the LEC and juvenile courtrooms, much of that work included restoring some of the most historical elements of the building. The new front doors are nearly indistinguishable from the original ones they replaced, said Executive Director of the Finney County Historical Society Steve Quakenbush, and the building was repainted to mimic what it would have looked like when it was first built, Jacobs said.
Repaired crown molding and front lights and polished floors are all original to the building. The result is a nice combination of new and old, plus a preserved example of federal style architectural, Quakenbush said.
“Even if it’s not tangible, or if it’s not something that a person is immediately or consciously aware of, if your community maintains significant structures from its past, that helps give citizens and visitors a sense of the community’s heritage,” Quakenbush said.
The most substantial example is the building’s largest and only original courtroom, the one where the Clutter murder case was tried. The unsound back wall was repaired, re-textured and repainted to match the rest of the room, the original plaster crown molding preserved. The pews, dating back to the ‘20s, were sent to Virginia for complete restoration, Jacobs said.
Because of the Clutter case, the courtroom is a tourist attraction unto itself, and the history is more than worth preserving, Jacobs said.
“I think this community values its history. I think the community values the tenacity and the grit of the people that settled this town 150 years ago…” Jacobs said. “I think it’s important to the community that we try to preserve at least this much of the space exactly the way it was, or at least as close as we could manage, because that’s part of the community in what it used to be and what it is now. We’re tying them together.”
More updates are coming to the courthouse, Jacobs said. Courtroom and judge’s suites on the second and first floor last touched in the 1980s will get an aesthetic facelift, a makeshift courtroom on the second floor will be converted into a permanent one, a new parking lot will be built and a new elevator installed, among other projects.
Ideally, that will encourage locals to embrace the courthouse as a community space, Jacobs said. Part of that is through the Art Walk partnership, which Garden City Arts Director Katy Guthrie said gives citizens a positive, non-legal reason to visit the building. Jacobs said he would like to encourage any non-political groups to use it.
“I want the community to know that this is a building that they should use if they have a reason to. If they have a meeting, if they want to come in and admire the artwork…” Jacobs said. “There are some things that I think we can do programmatically and through the building to help the community move forward in a way that makes us more accessible to people.”
Contract Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.