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Thursday, July 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Courthouse rehab balances historic preservation, modern convenience

High up in the Spokane County Courthouse tower, Ron Oscarson, facilities director for Spokane County, explains some of the recently completed exterior structural upgrades to the 120-year-old building. “It really just stands for its aesthetics and beauty,” he said. (Colin Mulvany)
High up in the Spokane County Courthouse tower, Ron Oscarson, facilities director for Spokane County, explains some of the recently completed exterior structural upgrades to the 120-year-old building. “It really just stands for its aesthetics and beauty,” he said. (Colin Mulvany)

Ron Oscarson has an office filled with souvenirs of years spent restoring Spokane County’s historic courthouse, which will turn 120 years old this November.

A discarded whiskey bottle that was paved into a wall when the old jail courtyard was closed in the 1940s. A working change machine that once dispensed nickels and dimes to fine-payers. And perhaps the proudest token: an oversized, game show-inspired check made out from then-Gov. Christine Gregoire to renovate the courthouse’s ornate tower.

Spokane County just received another one of those checks, totaling more than $600,000.

“I’m getting pretty darn good at this,” Oscarson, the county’s facilities director, said Friday inside the tower that took two years to overhaul.

The money, a grant that was built into Washington state’s budget passed this summer, is by Oscarson’s count the fourth time Spokane County has seen state assistance to renovate its “castle by the river.” County coffers will match the money from the state, setting aside $1.2 million to continue the work that has already taken place in the building.

Oscarson leads county employees and history buffs on sporadic tours of the courthouse, which was designed by architect W.A. Ritchie. Ritchie gave up designing courthouses after completing work on Spokane’s iconic building, in part due to quarrels with the builder.

“It really just stands for its aesthetics and beauty,” Oscarson said, gesturing to bricks that had to be replaced during the tower construction in 2008. “We don’t have any offices up here.”

Allyson Brooks, director of the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, said the state program that sets aside funding for courthouse work has both historic preservation and modern convenience in mind.

“The state recognizes there’s a balance between preserving historic characteristics, and also needing to put a new HVAC system in,” Brooks said.

Much of the state money will go toward structural improvements, including reinforcing floors supported by a patchwork of bricks held together by concrete and arches. At the same time, Oscarson said, the county is moving toward housing all of its customer service offices – the assessor, licensing and treasurer’s office – to the same floor. Part of the grant will be used to move the the treasurer from the second floor to the first, where family courts were housed until earlier this summer.

Treasurer Rob Chase said some of his staff would be reluctant to leave. The treasurer’s office has been housed in the same office, with roughly the same configuration, for decades. A black-and-white photo hangs on a bulletin board outside the office, with smiling staff members standing next to the courthouse vault.

“It’s the only unchanged room in the courthouse,” Chase said. “The office looks almost the same as it did in that picture in 1920.”

But the move will help staff provide better service to residents, he said. Employees are being trained to handle different tasks, with the goal of office visitors being able to approach any staff member with any question, similar to customer service at an Apple Store, Chase said.

“The problem with being a historical place is that it doesn’t work as well in 2015,” he said.

Changes on the first floor may not end at the treasurer’s office. Voters will decide in November whether to increase the number of county commissioners from three to five, which would require more office space on the first floor. The adjacent family courtroom is now empty following its move to the second floor.

Rehabilitation projects won’t begin right away.

Though several pieces of the courthouse’s history have found their way into Oscarson’s office over the years, the work that’s been done on his watch has left its imprint as well. Above one of the custom windows in the corner of the courthouse tower sits a toy pony. Oscarson said the daughter or perhaps granddaughter of a worker placed the toy there on a tour during construction. The horse, now covered in dust, brings a smile to his face.

“At first, I was mad and I wanted to get it out of there,” Oscarson said. “But then I thought, nope, it gets to live there.”

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