News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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September 26, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Restoration improves courthouse top’s standing in skyline

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute has a skyline.

From some angles, it consists of billboards, restaurant marquees and convenience-store signs. From other spots, the outlines of historic buildings, church steeples, college dorms and old industries jut into the horizon. Two years ago, when comedian Will Ferrell clandestinely filmed a series of joke beer commercials in Terre Haute, he chose the rooftops of two prominent elements of the local skyline as locations for a couple of the spots — Terre Haute’s “skyscraper” (the 12-story Sycamore Building) and the downtown parking garage.

Ferrell’s parking garage ad opened with a panoramic shot of the most recognizable structure on the cityscape, the Vigo County Courthouse. The view looks quite scenic, notwithstanding the can of Old Milwaukee sitting on the garage ledge in the foreground.

Visually, the courthouse earns its dominance. It stands 284 feet tall, from the ground to the top of its cupola. The main building measures 226 feet north to south, and 277 feet east to west, with five stories of courtrooms and offices. Above that, a dome tower rises the equivalent of another four stories. An architect from Cincinnati, Samuel L. Hannaford, designed a French-style courthouse for a French-named town in a state blessed with deep deposits of limestone. The resulting French Neo-Baroque (also called Stone Quarry style) took four years to build (in the pre-power-tools era) and debuted in 1888. It’s a whopping 92,335 square feet of space, dressed in massive stones from Stinesville shaped into columns, arches and peaks.

Its focal point is the dome.

That dome just got shinier and the skyline more noticeable. Terre Haute has gone gold.

Workers from a Columbus, Ohio, company specializing in historic building restoration are wrapping up a two-month project to repair the primary courthouse dome, the smaller domes around its tower, and the surrounding iron work. The dome’s copper skin — installed nearly four decades ago — began leaking from weather and a lack of preventative maintenance, Vigo County commissioners told the Tribune-Star in April. Hail dented and punctured the roof. Wind gusts loosened seams in the copper, and more than 2,500 screws needed to be replaced. Stones and the iron catwalk fence around the cupola needed to be secured.

“It was in sad shape,” said R.J. Kunkle, owner of the restoration firm, Traditions Group.

Commissioners opted to repair and seal the dome for $180,000, rather than replace its copper skin at a cost of more than $1 million. (The entire courthouse was built 125 years ago for $433,189 — the equivalent of a relatively modest $10.9 million today.) The restoration process — after breaks, holes and dents are patched and the surface is prepared — includes multiple coatings of a clear, protective sealant applied before and after two coatings of gold pigment developed in Germany. Workers must use brushes, Kunkle emphasized.

“It’s thick,” he said, sitting near a work trailer on the courthouse grounds. “It’s almost like a marshmallow shake.”

Kunkle knows courthouses. He’s tended to them for 65 of his 86 years. His first courthouse restoration was in Paulding County, Ohio, in 1956. Since then, his list has grown to 147 courthouses, more than 2,000 churches, five state capitols and numerous structures on the National Register of Historic Places. The Vigo County Courthouse joined the National Register in 1983. Kunkle ranks it pretty high, too.

“Of the 147 [courthouses], the architecture of this one is a nicer design than any, by far,” he said.

Maybe the gold makeover befits its distinct character. Just a few Indiana courthouses, including Dubois County’s, has a dome coated gold by Kunkle and his crew.

Of course, the golden dome most commonly associated with Indiana graces the top of the Main Building at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. That dome, gilded with 23.9-karat gold leaf, has been in place since 1882. With its new, far less costly gold pigment coating, the Vigo County Courthouse has changed its look. The copper skin, which Kunkle installed in 1974, developed a patina — a greenish crust, formed by oxidation — over time.

The gold gleams and catches attention. The aged copper blended into the background.

“I’ve had some people calling who like it shiny, and some who like it dull,” said Mike Ciolli, one of Vigo County’s three commissioners. He’s heard only one fully negative comment.

Traditions Group workers have heard mostly positive comments, too. “Overall, we’ve had very good responses,” said Ike Rader, project manager and supervisor.

They’ve also fielded mixed reviews to a similar protective coating of bronze to a cast-iron military figure atop a tall monument on the east side of the courthouse grounds. Weather, especially hail, left “pinholes” on its surface and caused its copper base to stain the stone stand. The stain is no longer visible, and the metal figure has a brighter bronze tone.

Kunkle expects to complete the job by month’s end. Still, to keep the gold looking fresh and the dome secure, upkeep will be necessary every two years, costing approximately $1,200, Ciolli said. Kunkle praised the commissioners for pursuing the restoration and the preventive maintenance. “They want the building to last forever,” Kunkle said.

They don’t make courthouses, or domes, like that anymore, and Terre Haute’s skyline wouldn’t be the same without ours.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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