FAIRFIELD — Solano County’s landmark 1911 courthouse has become a massive, granite-clad shell that is hiding some big changes inside.
This neoclassic monument to government, with its front Doric colonnade, is amid a $29.8 million restoration project. The state Administrative Office of the Courts is reshaping it to serve Solano County Superior Court.
The 102-year-old building – among the most striking on Texas Street in downtown Fairfield – looks essentially the same as ever from the outside. The biggest difference is the scaffolding draped along the exterior so workers can restore the granite facade.
Inside, the difference is striking. Inside is a construction zone, where welders strike sparks and workers in hard hats tramp along bare concrete floors.
“The building was essentially gutted,” said Aaron Holm, the project manager. “The historic elements are really the only thing that remain inside. The rest was stripped to the bone.”
When last occupied, the old courthouse held the Solano County administrative offices and various other county offices. The county moved out in 2005 to the new, six-story county Government Center across the street. The courthouse sat vacant.
In 2010, the county sold the courthouse to the state for the symbolic price of $1. The county no longer needed the building, but Solano County Superior Court officials had long had their eyes on it. The court intends to create space there for three civil courtrooms, a civil court office, jury assembly rooms, office space and an alternative dispute resolution/mediation center.
That will free up space at the existing court facilities, which are cramped, Solano County Superior Court Presiding Judge Paul Beeman said.
Most of the renovation work done since April has been seismic strengthening. Buildings in 1911 didn’t have to be constructed to today’s standards to withstand certain intensities of earthquakes.
The old courthouse might look like a block of granite sculpted into a Greek building, but it’s not. It has brick walls with a granite facade six inches to three feet thick.
Workers have used shotcrete – concrete shot through a hose – to create new perimeter interior shear walls from the bottom to top of the building. They’ve added a million pounds of rebar and they’ve secured the granite facade. Though an large earthquake hopefully won’t hit the area, the old courthouse is now ready to rock.
The inside of the courthouse these days is a mixture of old and new. Amid the gutted interior, arched entryways and the original windows can be seen near new, silver steel beams where future walls will go.
A grand marble staircase inside the main entrance is now covered with wood for protection. This striking feature will reemerge when the construction work is done.
“When the public enters the building, it will look much as it did in 1911,” said Brian Taylor, executive officer for Solano County Superior Court.
The county prior to vacating the courthouse in 2005 used one upstairs room for decades as the Solano County Board of Supervisors chamber. Long before that, the room was a courtroom. Now it will become a courtroom again.
This room will be restored to an old-time look with a row of seats to one side and the judge’s desk topped at both ends by light fixtures. The other two courtrooms to be constructed in the building will have a more modern look, but not this one.
“You’re going to have one (courtroom) that is going to be as historic in nature as the law will allow,” Beeman said.
Judge Scott Kays said a photograph of the old courtroom is being used as a guide for the restoration.
Bids for the Solano County courthouse renovation came in higher than expected. The state came up with a stripped-down renovation project to stay on budget.
On Tuesday, the Solano County Board of Supervisors helped out. It made available $936,000 in developer fee money that is collected for county court facilities. That will allow the state to add back some restoration features.
For example, the outdoor front monument steps leading to the Doric columns and the adjacent piers have settled unevenly. A cost-cutting measure addressed this problem by simply leveling the individual steps. Now the state can can rebuild the stairs and further support the foundations at a cost of $165,000.
Once again, the state can install wool broadloom carpet in the courtrooms and chambers at a cost of $90,000, instead of using an acrylic carpet tile.
It can replace old and failing irrigation lines on the courthouse property at a cost of $85,000.
Local officials at one point had wanted to finish the old Solano County courthouse renovation by 2011, the 100th anniversary of the building’s construction. Instead, renovation work didn’t even begin until this year.
But now the project has a second chance, in a way. The old courthouse was completed in 1911, but for some reason the county never got around to dedicating it until July 4, 1914.
It’s a different 100-year anniversary, but still an anniversary. The renovation has about another six months to go and is to be finished by the end of June 2014.
“Our grand opening will probably be around July 4 (2014), which is 100 years after they did the grand opening, which is kind of cool,” Taylor said.
Another dedication ceremony is on the way, a century after the first.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.