Iconic courthouse marks a milestone
Minimal changes keep landmark looking young
Since initially being built in September of 1895 the Hamilton County Courthouse, in all its splendor and prominence, has undergone a number of historical changes. All of these improvements and restorations have lent to a long life for the structure, which now proudly celebrates its 125th birthday.
“The people of Hamilton County will be glad to know that the county commissioners have decided to clean out all of the old trees and rubbish in and around the courthouse square, grade it up, seed it down, put in permanent crosswalks (sidewalks), plant a few nice trees and make the square a thing of beauty as well as unity,” reads an Aug. 3, 1895 edition of the Aurora Republican.
Shortly after, according to additional historical information, on Aug. 10, 1895, four “ever-running fountains” were added. These are no longer present and no documentation serves to say when they were removed.
In 1906 the “Weeping Angel” statue present outside the courthouse was presented as a gift from General Delevan Bates. Also in relation to the veterans memorial, two Parrott Guns located on the courthouse grounds were donated to the scrap metal drive for WWII in May of 1984.
“When you hear the clatter of the horses hooves on the pavement then you know you are in a real city,” a newspaper article from Dec. 26, 1911 reads. “It is a great step forward for any city when it puts in its initial paving, but it is of little avail unless it is followed up from year to year with extensions. Nearly every city once started constantly adds to its paved district and Aurora will be no exception to that rule. The new passenger station will be coming up in the spring and will probably be the next point to which all will desire to see the paving extend.”
This designates the bricking of the square surrounding the courthouse and downtown area.
Other changes over the courthouse’s early years included more roof work done in 1930 and 1945, when the roof had some leaking issues. Sometime between 1940 and 1950, according to a historical photo found at The Plainsman Museum, shows the construction of a parking lot. In 1950 the old original slate tiles were removed from the roof and replaced with asbestos shingles, which were painted white in 1994.
In 1984 a campaign was initiated to raise funds to replace the bandstand with one that more closely resembled the original bandstand. Later in September of 1988, according to historical Aurora News-Register documentation, the bandstand underwent restoration. Finally, in 1985 the Hamilton County Courthouse itself was named to the National Register of Historical Places.
A large number of changes and improvements were made to one of the tallest structures in the county leading up to its most recent hallmark birthday -- number 100. Commissioners, committees and other local residents had been planning these updates as far back as 1988.
“It was perhaps the largest birthday party Hamilton County has ever seen,” wrote Heather Hooper in a June 25, 1995 article in the Grand Island Independent. “About a thousand residents gathered in the courthouse square to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the courthouse. Jim Koepke, a local banker who served on the courthouse celebration committee, urged the crowd to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the county’s most famous landmark.”
A group of citizens including Jim Schneider, Jayne Smith, Jim McHargue and others (the original A’ROR’N Days committee) had brought the attention of this upcoming birthday to commissioners, Commissioner Becky Richter noted in a Monday interview. Richter was the county clerk at the time of the celebration.
“It was going to culminate with this big 100th birthday celebration,” she said. “Well then the courthouse employees got enthused about it, the highway employees got enthused about it.”
This celebration included a cake shaped like the building itself, baked and decorated by Karen Joyce, the deputy county treasurer and Rosie Miller of Aurora.
“The unveiling of the historical marker took place Saturday afternoon on the west side of the courthouse before a large crowd,” reads the cutline to a June 28, 1995 Aurora News-Register snapshot by Hap Fruits picturing Paul Kemling, former county board chairman, and former County Clerk Becky Richter unveiling the marker.
According to Richter, during her present-day reflection, the clerk’s office knew that the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because they had the paperwork -- however there was no marker to designate the achievement.
“So we got started checking on what a marker would cost and what it should say and the people from the Farr Trust really got excited about it too -- which was like Jim Koepke and Tim Otto -- and that’s when they helped us work towards this goal of restoring the bandstand and getting this historical marker up.”
A handful of additional names helped the marker remain a secret (having it covered with a tablecloth until its reveal) and then eventually it was shown to the entire community.
“It was just a proud moment for the whole community,” Richter said.
“New technology has since moved into the old courthouse, but as Becky Richter, the county clerk, was proud to point out the new has been successfully blended with the old,” the Grand Island Independent article continues. “All of the original white oak woodwork is intact, including wide sweeping staircases with carved spindles.”
Another update in 1995 came from Bob Ernst, who took the time to polish all of the brass door knobs and key plates in the courthouse. Additionally, the flashing strobe lights originally placed by Dr. Harold Edgerton himself in June of 1964 were replaced (and donated by his family).
New trees, shrubs and flowers were also planted, air conditioning, plumbing and heating elements were also replaced.
“Everybody was excited about this building,” Richter noted, “and that it was 100 years old. We were working with what we had to make it more modern and yet maintaining, you know, the integrity of a historic building.”
Richter also spoke on this similar theme when retelling of when the elevator was added and the old steam radiators and window air conditioning units were replaced in 1995. There again, she said, the staff tried to not change the overall integrity of the building drastically -- trying to keep as much the same as possible.
“I think it’s important to maintain that heritage and that story of the courthouse,” Richter noted.
Renovations in 2005
“Some might say they’re just plain nuts, those guys who build scaffolding high into the air where only things with wings should be,” wrote Kathy Kugler in a 2005 edition of the Aurora News-Register. “But for the crew working at the Hamilton County Courthouse, it’s just a typical day to assemble metal and wood to form an elaborate ‘ladder’ to the heavens.”
The Omaha-based company responsible for putting up the scaffolding was one that traveled “all over the Midwest” doing that very job.
“To build the courthouse scaffolding for the half-million dollar roofing project involves several phases,” the article continued.
A headline from a different article in the same paper read “Roofing project costs far more than courthouse did in 1895.”
The projected roofing project was estimated to cost over $500,000 and was being paid for out of the county’s inheritance fund. The architect was Jerry Berggren.
The initial bid for the Hamilton County Courthouse roof came in at just over half a million and caused a few gulps and gasps, according to a July 7, 2005 Aurora News-Register article by Kugler. The new slate roof was estimated, by the professional roofer placing it, should last another 100 years. The slate itself came in from North Country Slate of Scarborough, Ontario, Canada.
Also part of the roof renovation project, the replacement or repair of the courthouse tower windows, drew “questions and accusations” according to Kugler in August of 2005.
“It all begins with the moment project architect Jerry Berggren advised the board that the tower windows were badly in need of repair. He said it would be prudent to do the project while scaffolding was still in place.”
In the article former County Board Chairman Steve Jacobsen noted the urgency to complete the additional project all related to the scaffolding. The county would save money doing it while the scaffolding was still up.
“Jacobsen said based on the recommendation of the architect and general contractor, they gave the green light to proceed so the project would not cost more taxpayer money.
“At that time one of the first questions we asked him as what is the breakdown of the cost per window and that type of thing “ Jacobsen recalled.
Changes and restorations put into place to help the Hamilton County Courthouse celebrate 125 years included the pouring of new sidewalks around the courthouse, which according to Richter the Hamilton Community Foundation helped greatly with.
“The sidewalks were in need of repair so that was pretty exciting,” she said. “We’re also waiting on some vendors to help us with the plans to reveal the stained glass in the vaults.”
The vaults in some of the county offices had stained glass windows that were probably bricked in to help with the energy crisis sometime in the 1970s, noted Richter, as a way to conserve air leaks and the like.
“We (are also) doing some maintenance on the bandstand that was refurbished during the centennial celebration and we were hoping to have tours of the courthouse,” she said. “You know, open it to the public, with a few people chosen at random to be allowed to go to the top -- because that was one of the things that used to happen quite often in the past.”
In the past many groups were taken up into the tower, Richter added, where those in attendance could see almost every edge of the county on a clear day.
“So we were excited with that possibility and we had some work done on the stairs and the landing and railings to make it more secure,” she said. “And then of course the water feature. We’ve gotten the water fountain that had originally been in that location (on the grounds) from the museum.”
The museum “graciously agreed” to turn ownership of the fountain back over to the county and though it will no longer serve as a drinking fountain Richter noted that it will be a nice water feature.
Having some vendors, contractors, supplies and plans pushed back because of COVID has also hindered the possibility of a birthday party this year -- but that’s okay. Richter said that the show will go on next year. County officials are excited to celebrate and she said she hoped the community is too.
“I think people in the county, the city, all the villages, the rural people -- everybody’s proud of our courthouse,” Richter said. “The people of this community just love this building and it’s one of the premier historic courthouses in the state.”
Only a few like it still stand, she added, including another built by the same architect -- William Gray -- in the Richardsonian Romanesque style.
“I had a production company, Brazos, they came in when I was a clerk and wanted to use the district courtroom for a historic production they were doing,” she continued reminiscing, “because our’s was one of the few courthouses that still had like the jury chairs and the defendants table and the judge’s bench.”
The crew filmed it in a way to not show the carpet, and requested any other historical seals or anything Hamilton County had to make it more real. Who knew the courthouse was a movie star?
“It has just been a unique building that people talk about,” she said.
‘I think it’s important to maintain that heritage and that story of the courthouse.’
‘It has just been a unique building that people talk about.’