Majestic southern Minnesota courthouse is getting a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ renovation

The dedication of the Martin County Courthouse was a big deal in 1907.

Thousands of people poured into Fairmont, the county seat, by train; others arrived by horse and buggy. The people of Fairmont served more than 3,000 free meals to the visitors, according to newspaper accounts of the event from the Martin County Historical Society. The crowd was so large that the bands and dignitaries had to fight their way to the platform.

The object of their desire was the new Martin County Courthouse, three stories of fireproof sandstone and limestone topped with a copper dome that rose 58 feet above the roof. Ringing the dome inside were giant murals with figures representing peace, war, genius and inspiration.

The dome also housed a clock with four faces, all driven by a central mechanism.

That building, its cornerstone laid by Minnesota Gov. J.A. Johnson, cost $125,000 to build. Now, more than a century later, the dome is being replaced, and the clock renovated, at a cost approaching $2.5 million.

It’s a lot for a rural county whose population is just shy of 20,000 people. But the ravages of time left no choice. After more than 100 years, the copper roof was leaky and ragged, its steel supporting structure rusted away by countless rains.

“The courthouse is a major thing for them and they should be commended for that,” said Bob Mickelson, a senior project manager at ISG, the Mankato-based architecture and engineering firm overseeing the renovation. “It was leaking bad. There was a lot of damage done and more to come.”

Mickelson said the renovation team was in for a surprise when it saw the original blueprints for the courthouse.

“They were 12 pages,” he said with a chuckle. “This day and age, we couldn’t even do a preliminary design of a courthouse that size with 12 pages.”

The renovation got underway in late 2018 and is expected to be completed in late spring or early summer. Work began with tuck-pointing the building’s stonework, then progressed to the dome. Designers and engineers consulted historic photographs and took new photos with a drone.

Damage was extensive, in part because the original builders didn’t put a protective layer on the inside of the dome. That’s being remedied with sheathing in the rebuild.

The detailing of the copper roof is extensive — in fact, Mickelson said, the craftsmen working on it said they’d never seen such ornate details.

Architects also are bringing back to life the four copper eagles, with 6-foot wingspans, that once adorned the dome. Two of the eagles had gone missing over the years, so new ones will be fabricated.

The clock is its own story. Made by legendary clockmaker Seth Thomas, it features four 7-foot faces driven by a central mechanism. The clockworks, thankfully, were in better shape than the dome. They’re being restored to “museum-quality” standards by horologist Rory DeMesy of Mechanical Watch Supply in Minneapolis, a renowned expert in repairing and restoring tower clocks.

Working on such a project is a rare opportunity.

“This is kind of almost a once-in-a-lifetime type of deal,” Mickelson said.

The courthouse is a legacy from past citizens that needs to be preserved, said Scott Higgins, the county coordinator.

“It’s iconic here,” he said. “Definitely a building that folks are proud of, and it’s our obligation to keep that up for the people.

“Now it will be ready for future generations.”