Nobody said renovating a century-old courthouse would be easy. For the last four years, county employees and citizens have had to deal with loud disruptions, detours, temporary offices and makeshift courtrooms while the Missoula County Courthouse has undergone a top-to-bottom $14 million renovation.
"We spent six or seven months with two people in an office built for one," says Nick Holloway, projects coordinator with the Office of Emergency Management, which is housed in the courthouse basement. "They were using jackhammers to go through conduit for wiring. So we had to live through all that, and that was challenging. Spent weeks at a time where we were living behind thick plastic barriers to keep the dust away from us."
Ultimately, though, it was worth it when his new office was unveiled in 2013.
"Our old spot was outdated and too small and inadequate for what we were doing," Holloway says. "When you're in the middle of it, it feels like it's taking forever. Looking back it didn't take too long."
As the remodel nears its final phase, Missoula County Communications and Projects Director Anne Hughes promises that it will be worth it for everyone else, too.
"It's really challenging," Hughes says, "when you've got people who are trying to get their jobs done every day and there's a jackhammer jackhammering concrete for hours at a time. Change is hard, you know, envisioning a space that isn't constructed yet and trying to imagine yourself in your new office, it's not easy to do. All the employees have been incredibly patient."
The renovation has been a long time coming, Hughes says, noting it's the biggest update of the A.J. Gibson-designed courthouse since the annex was added in 1966. Most of the work is hidden from public view, like jury rooms, judges' offices and the sheriff's department.
The basement now includes convertible conference rooms that can become a base of operations in case of a county-wide emergency, and the 911 center is designed according to Homeland Security specifications.
- photo by Kate Whittle
- As the historic Missoula County Courthouse approaches the final months of its remodel, county staff promise the hassle will soon be over.
"All the cabling and stuff in here is explosion-proof, as much as you possibly can," says Larry Farnes, county facilities manager. "The building could pretty much go down around the 911 center, and the nerve center part would still be able to sustain a lot more than the regular building."
On the second floor, Sheriff T.J. McDermott says several changes were desperately needed. Deputies now have a private bathroom so they don't have to take off their heavy gun belts in a public restroom. New "soft" interview rooms allow victims to give statements in friendly, art-filled spaces, instead of the plain interview rooms used for suspects. The receptionists' desk has been outfitted with a glass shield for their safety. An additional refrigerator gives deputies a safe place to store evidence samples separately from their lunches.
"This is an amazing improvement over what we had," McDermott says. "Finally we have a nice break room, a professional area where we have a debriefing every morning at 8:30."
As for the rest of the courthouse, an end is finally in sight, despite all the scaffolding and plastic sheeting. By June, the biggest interior work is set to be done on the third floor, including the historic district courtroom. It's intended to be a showpiece featuring a soaring ceiling, traditional architectural elements and restored artwork. Once it's done, the first-floor space that's currently serving as a district courtroom will transition into its intended purpose as a public meeting chamber for the Missoula Board of County Commissioners.
After all that's wrapped up, the county will move to the final phase of updating the exterior and planting new trees on the lawn. That phase is budgeted at $1.9 million and should finish by fall or next spring.
Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who's observed the entire process, says she's looking forward to the completion.
"Well, I think the thing I like the most is how we've figured out how to honor the past and the beauty and the old stuff," she says, "and how to meet the demands of the future."