"Gentlemen, here's an outstanding idea: Let's tear down our historic old courthouse and replace it with a generic modern building. Now, wouldn't that be great?"
I doubt anyone ever said those exact words, but that kind of thinking has made its way through a good number of Kansas county-seat towns. Of course in some cases it's understandable -- as with the case of Oskaloosa, Kansas. The old Jefferson County courthouse was destroyed by a tornado in 1960. In cases like that a newer building is necessary. But unfortunately some of the grand old edifices have also been taken out by choice, coming from a faulty notion of progress.
Such was nearly the case in Salina, Kansas in the 1960s. The decision was made to replace the older courthouse, which was built in 1910, with a newer one. The plaque on the new building said it was dedicated in 1969. These are the old and new buildings, respectively...
The original plan was to tear the old structure down, but in a period of transition they gave the 1st floor of the old building to the local senior center, while they used the upper floors for storage. And fortunately the seniors rallied from there to save the whole building.
I had a chance to meet Leslie Eikleberry, the Executive Director of the Saline County Commission on Aging, and she gave me a tour of the facility. (Leslie used to be the Communications Director for ESU.) Her office is in the old County Commissioners room. The building still has the look and feel of an old courthouse -- with the beautiful marble and wood and details -- all adapted to new uses for the county senior program.
The building hasn't been used for courthouse functions since the 1960s, but some of the names remain etched in their original places...
I found it interesting that the pool hall was in the old Register of Deeds office. Some fellows were literally shooting pool inside an old storage vault. I teased them about the possibility of money deals going on around the pool table in the safe. They joked back about the risk of Leslie shutting them inside.
They use the old courtroom for exercise classes and for larger meetings. The adjoining jury room is used for medical supplies that are given out to folks who need them.
I was impressed with how the citizens of Salina rallied to save a historic building and then adapt it to their local seniors program -- all the while preserving the same essential feel and character of the courthouse. It's good when communities can preserve the older structures.
That said, I have some sympathy for both the need for progress and the evolving nature of county operations. These require adaptations that I'm sure are challenging to county leaders.
As I was traveling I saw alot of the old wall-unit air-conditioners on the older courthouses. It seemed like a strange contrast to all the newer wind-turbines I saw in the country. Energy efficiency and clean resources are a good idea for all of us.
The challenge is probably similar to that of my house, which was built in 1926. Whenever I use my microwave and my electric toaster-oven at the same time a breaker trips and I have to go and reset it. These older buildings were built to accommodate the needs of a different era. But with all the computers and growing caseloads and other needs, the counties have to adapt. I'm sure it's a challenge.
In quite a few places they have phased some of the county functions into other buildings while still keeping some of them (either exclusively administrative or judicial functions) in the original buildings. This was the case with Johnson, Douglas, and Finney Counties. And a few others (Logan, Greeley, and Marshall Counties) have turned the older courthouses into museums. But Saline County was the only one I saw that turned it into a senior center. It seems like a good combination of historical preservation and making adaptations to meet evolving needs.