Changes needed — practical and aesthetic

Now we know what caused the disastrous courthouse fire — human error. The investigators, insurance companies and courts no doubt will be fighting it out on that line, if it takes all summer (and fall … and winter …) but one thing we can be assured of: The courthouse will be rebuilt, and with as much dispatch as is financially and humanly possible. This will not be another Elks Lodge allowed to sit indefinitely, a shell of its former self; or a former Catholic school building, later a private residence, slowly deteriorating in the Broadway-West Third Street area. This time, it is the seat of our county government, and the people will not tolerate the kind of dilly-dallying that has become, sadly, de rigeur in Madison in the last few years.

The thinking at this early stage is that the courthouse building — or, to be precise, the walls that stand relatively unscathed after the fire destroyed the cupola, dome and roof, and the third floor — will be restored more or less with the same appearance it had before the blaze of May 20. That’s probably feasible in a general way. But I have a few suggestions to make, as a non-architect and non-contractor, for whatever they’re worth.

For one thing, if one examines an architect’s drawing of the courthouse that was completed in 1855, then caught fire and was partially consumed in 1859, one will see that the original courthouse dome had long, vertically narrow windows, ranged all around it. It’s doubtful that much could be seen through those windows from the street, but you could say they symbolized, in a way probably not intended by the builders, what government should be like: Transparent. Windows onto the workings of our leaders in a democracy. No major secrets. A place where we the public could peer in, and keep our elected officials honest. Visibility that was figurative, yes — but symbols often mean a lot.

When the courthouse was renovated and restored after the 1859 fire, the windows were not replaced in the new dome. Instead, the louvers were installed that have been there ever since — right up to the fire of three weeks ago. Besides the fact that (in my view, anyway) the louvers are not as aesthetically pleasing as the windows, they also send an unfortunate subliminal message about county government: Closed. Not transparent. Hiding things.

So unless there is some really pressing practical reason to include new louvers with the new dome, let’s junk them. Replace them with new windows like the original ones. Let the sun shine in — so to speak — on county government.

And here’s another suggestion about appearances and symbolism. The courthouse bell, which hung in the dome for 150 years without most Jefferson Countians even knowing of its existence, has been saved. Presumably it will be cleaned and restored  to all its glory, with its ornate carvings once again visible as they were when it arrived in Madison, all 3,116 pounds of it. But why put it back up in the dome, to hang unseen and forgotten for another 150 years? Why couldn’t a belfry of sorts be built in the courthouse yard, and the bell be hung in it, visible to all, available to be rung by county officials on appropriate occasions? Of course, the usual Madisonian answer to any such suggestion is, “Why put anything nice out on the street? The drunks and hoodlums will just tear it up at night.” There are modern technologies that can be used to make such an event unlikely — like alarm systems. And that kind of a “What’s the use” attitude is shameful, anyway.

To return again to the issue of the windows in the dome, here’s another suggestion. Those same modern technologies that could be used to protect the belfry and bell could be utilized to turn the dome into a night-time showplace for both Jefferson Countians and visitors. Why not install some kind of a light show in it, visible through the windows, which would be turned on and off by a light sensor? The light show could have a patriotic theme, or something to do with the history and culture of this county. That could be worked out later, if county officials decided to install such a show. It would shine through the dome windows like the beams of a lighthouse. Would it be of practical use? I guess not. But you could make the same argument about the various monuments in the courthouse yard. That’s no reason for taking them down; and it shouldn’t be a reason for NOT at least giving the light show a try.

As to more practical suggestions, some are obvious: A sprinkler system in the courthouse. An elevator with cars large enough to accommodate EMS gurneys. The present one isn’t. When a county official suffered a heart attack on the third floor in recent years, he had to be carried downstairs in a chair. Some type of security system for the courtrooms; in the current courthouse before the fire, there was none. Zero. In my years as a reporter I covered a number of criminal trials in the circuit courtroom, and a person could probably have carried  a small-sized Uzi submachine gun in, hidden in a large overcoat, if he had such murderous intentions. That’s scary. Metal detectors are needed, at the very least.

There are my suggestions; take them for what they’re worth. If you like them, or if you think they’re way off base, I hope you’ll post comments saying so. Maybe we can be a guide for county officials as they start planning the new, restored courthouse. Vox populi is always useful in a democracy.

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