One of Iowa’s Foremost Public Buildings
By Mark A. Hanson, County Supervisor District 2 (Sept. 2007)
For 105 years the Dallas County Courthouse has stood majestically in the public square of Adel, Iowa. I would like to thank the citizens of Dallas County, past and present, for their wisdom and guidance on the building and decision to restore the Dallas County Courthouse. Over the period of 1880-1900 there was an acknowledgement that the old courthouse was out of date and a new and larger one was needed. There were conflicting factions that wanted the county seat and thus the courthouse to be in Perry, Waukee, Dallas Center or Adel. In 1898 a vote was defeated regarding a proposed $65,000 courthouse on the original site in Adel. In November of 1900 the matter was again voted upon, this time it passed for an $85,000 structure. The board of supervisors consisting of John Shively, M.W. Gribbens and Levi Hockett let the contract for the new courthouse to James Rawson & Sons of Iowa City for $74,300. This bid did not include plumbing, heating and furnishings.
George Bird was hired as the architect. He was a partner in the Des Moines firm of Proudfoot and Bird and he was inspired by the Azay-le-Rideeau Chateau at Indre-et-Loire, west of Tours, France when he designed the building. The old elegant French residence which was completed in 1529 is more elaborate in design but the resemblance is evident even though the courthouse departed from the French plan in many ways. The architect drew inspiration for the impressive tower, plate glass work, and interior finishes from other sources as well.
The building is constructed of the best quality Bedford (Indiana) stone with a red tile roof. Huge blocks of stone weighing 3 1/2 tons go to make up the main wall. The tower contains a large bell which sounds out the time of day or night. Directly below the bell are the large Roman numeraled clocks, each facing a principle direction and being lit from the backside, they can be seen for several miles. Marble wainscoting lines the hallways, oak wood trim is used extensively, stairways have slate steps and the banisters are of bronze metal surmounted with oak cornices.
The general dimensions of the building are one hundred and twenty-six feet by eighty-four feet. The height of the summit of the tower is one hundred and twenty-eight feet. It includes three completed stories, with a part additional story which may be fitted up and utilized. (This 4th floor was utilized in 1998 with the addition of a courtroom, judge’s chambers, jury room and bathrooms.) One of the most striking features is the turret-shaped corners which swell boldly, yet gracefully, out from the building, each crowned at the roof with a little tower. High above both the main entrances on the north and the south, surmounting pedestals, which rest on the roof, are statues of the Goddess of Justice. Leaning far out, with gracefully carved body and limbs, she holds forth the scale of justice, whose horizontal beam indicated that justice is being meted out. On the outside east wall of the building, carved out of solid stone, in bold relief, is the engraving of the former Dallas County Courthouse. Above it are the words: “Old Courthouse Built in 1858.”
Work officially commenced in January of 1901 when the Board of Supervisors let the bids for 300 loads of building sand (Thos Harsh, $ 0.45 per sq. yard) and the bid for the taking down the old courthouse. (Hollenbeck Bros, $3.00 per thousand for brick saved, $0.50 per perch for all stone cleaned, $2.50 per thousand for dimension lumber.) On May 1, 1901 the Dallas County News reported: “a lot of Ottumwa stone for the foundation of the new courthouse arrived last week, also a carload of Bedford stone for the exterior of the building.” It also reported that “Contractor Rawson is now on the ground and a force of men is making preparation for active work. A derrick has been rigged and the heavy stone work for the foundations began yesterday.”
Building this building using turn of the century methods must have been something to witness. So much so, that on June 3, 1901 the Board of Supervisors took action which said “...contractor is given full control of the foundation and grounds...to facilitate the speedy and proper prosecution of work, and to prevent hindrance and injury thereto.” It should also be noted that all county offices and functions had to be displaced during this building period. The building was completed and turned over to the county on May, 1902. With the official dedication held on September 19, 1902. It was the last day of the county fair and a circus was in town so for $0.25 a citizen could attend all the festivities. Over 2,000 attended the dedication ceremony.
One other 1901 historical note as reported by the Dallas County News in the June 12 edition. “The members of the Board of Supervisors, Auditor Lyon and Building Superintendent Oleson went to Iowa City last Friday to see the new courthouse for Johnson County dedicated. The building has been erected by Rawson and Son, the contractors for our courthouse, and it was upon their invitation that this party went there. Auditor Lyon reports a splendid time, fine entertainment and a very nice courthouse, although he thinks ours will be ahead of it.”
In the fall of 2004 The Board of Supervisors received a report from a Shuck-Britson, Consulting Engineers regarding the failing floors. The report called for the necessity of shoring the floors and an immediate evacuation of the building. It seems that the original cantilevered flooring system installed used a material called haydite. It was commonly used by contractors at the turn of the century but not patented until 1907. I have described it as a cross between paper mache and concrete over a wire mess. It allowed for cross beams 12 foot apart for support. The condition was that the haydite was crumbling around the wire mesh. Any significant weight (a court trial with a large audience or heavy filing cabinets) could fall through the floor between the supports. The building was vacated and other office arrangements had to be made for the courts, auditor, treasurer, recorder, supervisors, assessor, operations and general services.
The board of supervisors directed that a complete review of the buildings general conditions be undertaken. Keffer/Overton Architects of Des Moines determined that the building could be saved and updated, but it would take extensive work. The architects determined what price the project would be and the Board of Supervisors held public hearings throughout the county to provide the facts about the current situation with the courthouse. It was said at some of these public hearings, “why don’t you just tear it down and build a new facility for your needs?” On July 12, 2005 an election was held for referendum vote on the proposition. The ballot language said “Shall the County of Dallas, State of Iowa, be authorized to construct improvements to the Dallas County Courthouse, including erection, equipment, remodeling, or reconstruction of, and additions or extensions to the building, at a total cost not to exceed $10,000,000., and issue its General Obligation Bonds in an amount not exceeding $10,000,000.for that purpose?”
The voters of Dallas County in every precinct of the county overwhelmingly approved this question. The total number of citizens that cast a vote was 4,018. There were 3,388 voting yes and 630 voting no on the question. .
Included but not limited to the following were included in the project: new floors, new internal stairwell, new elevator, geothermal heating/cooling, new electrical and HVAC, removal of the vaults that were in the offices of the Treasurer, Assessor, Auditor, Recorder and operations department, window replacement. Complete exterior cleaning, tuck pointing and other exterior repair, including the roof. Tower reinforcing and the creation of usable class one office space for the county and the courts purposes. Also included in the initial scope of work was making the north entrance to be at grade instead of the step down previously required. Bathrooms, flooring, removal and restoration of the wainscoting, security considerations were also part of the overall restoration plan.
The early work was done with great care because of the stability issues with the building. Structural steel beams had to be swung through windows with floors that were not structurally sound. Additional micro pile foundations had to be drilled to support the weight on new internal steel structure for the building. If you can picture a piece of cardboard bending, that is what the load bearing walls of the original building were doing. The floor displacement was creating integrity issues as the new framework was being installed. I should also note that the tower itself was of concern. Original plans from the architect called for a steel reinforced framework inside the tower itself. Keffer/Overton in their review of the general conditions prior to the bond issue had noted this change. In the Dallas County News, reporting on the Board of Supervisors meeting of November 14, 1901 it said: “In the matter of the tower for the courthouse it is hereby ordered that the tower be constructed entirely of stone in place of metal. Difference in the construction of same $1,600.00.” The weight of the bell within the tower, coupled with the weight of the tower itself, when the floors were not structurally sound made for some significant concern.
Today all the internal steel work has been completed. The stone tower has been repaired. There is a new stairwell and elevator. New concrete has been poured throughout the building; the concrete was poured one quadrant/section at a time. The exterior has been cleaned and new windows installed. Electrical and mechanical work is mostly complete. Phase IV finishing work has been bid and work is in progress. Painting, flooring, marble replacement, security systems, carpentry installation and general cleaning continue on a daily basis.
In Iowa we are very proud of our sense of community which our county courthouses are a symbol of. It is not just a building. It is part of the fabric of the county seat towns throughout our state. I was talking with WHO radio personality Van Hardin recently, who was raised in Adel, about our courthouse project. I asked him “what are your memories about the courthouse?” He said “I could look out my window and I could see the courthouse tower. I could also hear the bell chime the hour of the day. When I went in the building, although I was just a child, I knew that something important went on in the building".
THE COUNTY COURTHOUSE
“BASTION OF LIBERTY”
By Reagan Brown
As you travel the roads of Iowa, in fact throughout the land,
You’ll come to towns called county seats where an impressive building stands.
It’s called the county courthouse, that’s the title which she bears
Proud guardian of the records of the people’s hopes and cares.
Her lawn may have a statue of a boy in grey or blue,
And if she’s somewhat modern and perhaps a little new,
It may be a 1918 doughboy or a lad of World War II.
She’s the emblem of our freedom, this building on the square,
With her clock and sometimes pigeons, as she looks so peaceful there.
It’s the place where names are recorded when baby comes to make us glad.
And here the last notation is written when death’s angel makes us sad.
It’s the place the youngsters head for, when they prepare to say I vow.
And it’s the showdown place for trouble, that wrinkles many a brow.
It’s the bastion of our freedom, where it may be jail or bail,
And it’s where neighbor judges neighbor on justice lawful scale.
Here you will find the judge and sheriff and of course you will note the clerks,
It’s America’s best example of how “grass roots democracy” works.
A salute to the county courthouse, and a lusty cheer,
For a symbol of freedom and the traditions we hold so dear.
Perhaps it’s wrong for poets to her a feminine touch,
But in a way she mothers things that touch our lives so much.
God bless the county courthouse, and please always keep it near,
Lord keep it always open, and keep its purpose clear.