Courthouse square will be place of pride again

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 24, 2004

By Bev Jackson, Tribune columnist

Monday, Oct. 18, 2004 &045; the official dedication of the Freebom County Government Center &045; a milestone in our history.

I was there, sitting in the front row, feeling like a tiny piece of a significant part of Freeborn County’s history.

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The dedication ceremony was held in District Courtroom No. 2, and we all stood while our district judges and several others from the state judicial system entered the room. The black robes and suits and ties all added to the solemnity of the occasion, but my excitement wanted to overflow.

More than six years ago, I was asked to serve on a 25-member citizens committee. Our purpose was to look at the drawings that had been made of a new courthouse. Each of the county commissioners had asked five people from their district to help with the monumental decision that would have to be made. Do we continue as is, tear down one or all of the buildings that were currently being used, move to another site, build another addition? What will be best for the county, its citizens, and its future? The committee would meet for about three months, and then our suggestions would be reviewed by the county commissioners.

The first time that we gathered together, we were updated on the problems with the current buildings, and in subsequent meetings we were shown the 10 designs that architects had drawn based on interviews with courthouse staff. Security, space, and technology were only a few of the items we were asked to consider. While history and tradition were mentioned occasionally, they were not a priority.

That committee examined copies of the plans, toured our own facility several times, talked to staff, spent a day touring other county government centers, talked to our friends and neighbors, and then rejected the original plans, and asked the architect to design another complex based on what we had learned and what we believed was best for the county. This plan was then submitted to the county commissioners. It called for tearing down the 1954 building, constructing an addition on the east side of the old courthouse, and restoring the 1887 building. Our three-month commitment had turned into two years.

Then public presentations were held throughout the county giving all citizens a chance to share their ideas, and after several years of conflict, many heated debates, morning coffee/doughnut discussions, letters to the editor, a change of county commissioners, and another change of county administrator, the decision was finally made. Our plan was not accepted, but instead another was drawn up that included adding a jail complex, purchasing more land, the removal of an historic grocery warehouse, and finally the construction of a beautiful, practical, and secure government center that will serve the people of Freebom County for many, many years.

The new building meets all of the needs that we discussed so long ago, and many more that we were not aware of, and its modem design blends with the beauty of the Richardsonian Romanesque design of the 1887 building.

Because I grew up in Albert Lea and have always admired courthouse square, and because I love historic architecture, throughout the entire planning process, I always hoped that some day that 1887 building would regain its original beauty.

Several years ago, I was at the Dairy Queen across the street, and some customers from out of town were discussing the courthouse complex and joking about the mix of architectural styles. I told them about the beauty of the old building, but they looked at me like I was a bit daft.

But just last week a lady said to me, &uot;I was very opposed to tearing down the 1954 building. It seemed like such a waste. But, when I drove by and I could see what had been covered, I couldn’t believe how beautiful the old courthouse was. I was wrong. This was the right thing to do.&uot;

I don’t know how others will feel as the old courthouse is restored, but I’m sure that in 1887 when taxpayers were told that building costs would be $75,000, they too were very upset. I want to commend the county commissioners for their very difficult decision and their determination to see the project through.

The government center dedication ceremony was solemn, with its judges and officials, the introductions and welcome, courthouse history, governor’s proclamation, and the dedication, but at the following reception, the smiles, congratulations, handshakes, cheerful voices, and even hugs all made me realize that underneath that solemnity, others were feeling that same excitement that I could hardly contain.

Our courthouse square will be beautiful again, a place we can point to with pride, and, I believe that future generations will benefit from our courage.

(Bev Jackson is the executive director and curator of the Freeborn County Historical Museum.)