Navigate this section

The Third Branch

Crawford County Courthouse remodel reveals deep history of local justice

By Nancy A. Dowling, Register in Probate/Juvenile Court Clerk, Crawford County

Crawford County Circuit Court Judge James P. Czajkowski and Court Reporter Carol Hobart enter the newly remodeled main courtroom, where Family Court Clerk Lisa Miller is seated (right). The old gallery chairs, built in the late 1800s, were retained and still serve as seating.

Crawford County Circuit Court Judge James P. Czajkowski and Court Reporter Carol Hobart enter the newly remodeled main courtroom, where Family Court Clerk Lisa Miller is seated (right). The old gallery chairs, built in the late 1800s, were retained and still serve as seating.

In October 2011, Crawford County (one of Wisconsin's original counties) began the process of remodeling their historic courthouse, the oldest section having been erected in 1867 and an addition evoking a distinctly Georgian quality added in 1930. Established in 1818 as one of three territorial counties (comprised of present-day Wisconsin and portions of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota), Crawford County precedes statehood by 30 years. The 1867 courthouse (built for $23,000) was constructed in the center of an expansive tree-filled lawn (purportedly on the foundation of an 1843 structure) and combines the distinctive rectilinear formality of the Italianate style with the warm color and rough texture of dolomitic limestone, which was hauled from the nearby village of Bridgeport.

The most dramatic feature of the building is hidden in the basement of the old structure—the "dungeon," which was built in 1843 and served as a territorial prison. Built in catacomb-like fashion with low vaulted ceilings, thick limestone walls, and poor natural illumination, the jail is composed of a series of squat cells with heavy iron bars and doors. The dungeon was used as a jail until 1896 and reflects an era when prison conditions were rarely more than dark, dank cells incongruously housed only a short distance from the grandeur of the courtroom—a visible reminder in 19th century Crawford County of the swift process of justice and the intricate connection between the judges and the judged. This rare example of a mid-19th century penal facility still exists today and the cell cubicles and chains make it apparent that only the hardy could have survived this manner of confinement.

In 2005, the county's administrative offices moved from the courthouse to the new Administration Building. At this time, the Public Property Committee asked to have a space needs study completed of the courthouse and a proposed timeline for the remodel; this was updated in 2011 and at that time the process for the courthouse remodel was initiated. With the last major upgrade having been completed in 1930, the courthouse no longer met the needs of our civil and criminal justice system—the boiler was archaic, the electrical system was no longer reliable in supporting modern technology, the building was cooled by window air conditioners, the original windows were drafty and cold during the winter, lighting was inefficient, and ADA facilities were limited or nonexistent. The goal of the remodel was to strengthen security, improve public accessibility, upgrade energy performance/efficiency, and enhance the functionality of the court. At the same time, the county wanted to retain the aesthetic character of this veteran building, which is listed in both State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Although the Crawford County Courthouse recently underwent interior remodeling, the exterior remains similar in appearance to this drawing from 1867.

Although the Crawford County Courthouse recently underwent interior remodeling, the exterior remains similar in appearance to this drawing from 1867.

After numerous department and public property meetings with the architect and engineer, a $2 million budget ($300,000 for the boiler and $1.7 million for the courthouse remodel) was approved in May 2011; plans were adopted in August and bids were let, but came in over budget. The architect worked with the low bidder to cut costs, the County Board approved borrowing an additional $375,000, and demolition actually began in December 2011. After staff was relocated, the remodel was accomplished in phases. Of note, although change orders were costly and the project was delayed because new plaster was very slow to dry (due to the dolomitic stone walls), the county saved an estimated $32,000 in sales tax on direct owner purchases, received a Focus on Energy Grant of approximately $10,000, and saved on labor expenses by utilizing the Highway Department, prison work crews, and jail inmates.

We take great pride in the finished remodel project. Entering through the main entrance on the first floor, the public may take either the elevator or the stairs up to the second-floor courtroom. This is the main courtroom and comprises the top floor of the 1867 building—it is simple and elegant, with the judge's bench dominating the room. The flavor of the 1800s is retained in the original tin ceilings, the oak woodwork and the gallery seating (chairs also from the late 1800s). The original gallery was large enough to allow for the construction of two conference rooms at the public entrance to the courtroom and a secure walkway on the north side of the courtroom for escorting prisoners in and out.

The video conferencing television and cameras were wall-mounted and speakers installed in the jury box and throughout the courtroom. A private doorway was installed behind the bench to allow secure access/egress to and from the courtroom for the judge. The second floor of the 1930 building, which is accessed from the front of the courtroom or from the south stairway of that building, has been made a secure area and provides space for chambers and a private washroom, as well as space for a visiting judge, court reporter, judicial assistant, and the jury room with adjacent restrooms.

Jail cells that were used to hold inmates during territorial days remain intact in the basement of the Crawford County Courthouse after a recent courthouse remodeling project. Informal jail tours in an area known as “the dungeon” have become popular, especially on Halloween.

Jail cells that were used to hold inmates during territorial days remain intact in the basement of the Crawford County Courthouse after a recent courthouse remodeling project. Informal jail tours in an area known as "the dungeon" have become popular, especially on Halloween.

Down the hallway, the public will find all other offices (Clerk of Court, Register in Probate/Juvenile Clerk, Juvenile Court Worker, District Attorney, Victim-Witness Coordinator, and restrooms) on the first floor, which are now easily accessible. In addition, there is a smaller courtroom and two conference rooms on the first floor. Added security measures include an alarmed door on the first floor at the base of the south staircase (restricting public access to the second floor), numerous ceiling security cameras on both floors (being viewed at the Sheriff's Department at all times), as well as duress buttons located in offices and courtrooms on each floor. The remodel successfully combined the gentle dignity and quiet repose of a 145-year-old building with the needs of today's court system, elevated security, and fast-paced technology.

Back to top

Back to The Third Branch current issue