The nation’s courthouses are old and cold.
It hit 42 degrees inside the Okfuskee County district attorney’s office last week when Oklahoma and the eastern two-thirds of the nation were gripped by a cold spell that sunk temperatures below freezing, and in the north, well below zero. But with money tight, Okfuskee County officials had few options for how to warm the courthouse built in the small town of Okemah in 1926.
They weren’t alone. Counties across the country are collecting less in taxes and struggling to keep up with maintenance on aging county buildings, especially courthouses, hundreds of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Of the estimated 16,000 local courthouses in the U.S., about 2,500 are run down or need significant maintenance for the safety of the building, according to the National Center for State Courts.
At the century-old Logan County Courthouse in Guthrie, a window heat-and-air unit that runs all night helps keeps County Treasurer Sherri Longnecker’s employees cozy, at least until a customer enters and a blast of cold air shoots in from the unheated hallway.
“We love our old building. We take pride in it,” Longnecker said. “But it’s a funding issue. The county general fund doesn’t have any money.”
While some state legislatures have chipped in, most courthouses are supported locally, making it a particular challenge for small counties.
“It’s a crisis across the country for courthouses,” said Judy Edwards, executive director of the Multnomah Bar Association in Portland, Ore., where a 2008 study of that state’s 48 court facilities came up with a price tag of $843 million for upgrades. “We have money for federal courthouses, but state courts are different.
“These courthouses are part of the community fabric.”
In Okemah, a town of about 3,000 people located 75 miles east of Oklahoma City, the Arctic air that settled over the state in recent days had courthouse workers donning coats, hats and extra layers of warm clothing. At least one judge closed his office Thursday because of the cold.
“We don’t have heat anywhere in the courthouse,” said Assistant District Attorney Maxey Reilly, who wore thermal underwear and a coat Thursday when the mercury was in the single digits.
Okfuskee County officials estimate adding heat to the building will cost $35,000 — a significant sum in their poor, sparsely populated county. In other locations, the work can cost millions. The National Register of Historic Places doesn’t limit what can be done, but the buildings’ age means renovations aren’t always the best option.
“In many cases, it’s cheaper to demolish a building and build a new one,” said David Pollick, the president of Birmingham-Southern College and an expert in art history and architecture. “To function properly, these buildings require much more infrastructure than they once did.”
With little money and rotting pipes from an old boiler system buried in the walls of the historic building, an exasperated County Commissioner Max Henry has outfitted each office with space heaters and is seeking bids to install central heat and air. Still, he bristles when he hears the building has no heat.
“Don’t think a cup of coffee will freeze on a table down here. It’s not like that,” Henry said. “It’s been a long process ... but we’re getting it done.
“We couldn’t help the weather.”
Chilly conditions inside aging courthouses are a challenge in many northern states, said Kevin Bowling, court administrator for Ottawa County in Grand Haven, Mich.
“Often times, we find court employees bringing in little space heaters just so their fingers will stay warm enough to type on a computer,” Bowling said. “We work through it the best we can and look forward to summer.”
While the bitter cold plagues the old buildings in the winter, stifling heat becomes a problem in the summer.
Dan Hall travels to courthouses across the country as the vice president of consulting services for the National Center for State Courts. He recalled one summer visit to a jury room on the top floor of a courthouse in eastern Colorado.
“It was hotter than blazes,” he recalled. “I can’t imagine a jury deliberating in there. I guess it would be a motivator for a quick decision.”
Hall stressed the importance of maintaining courthouses stretches beyond just keeping workers comfortable.
“The courthouses across the country allow citizens to interact with their government, and they really become a large source of civic pride for these communities,” Hall said. “They serve a broader purpose than just housing the courts. They are kind of the hub of the community.”