This story originally appeared on Sept. 20, 1970, in the Winona Republican-Herald, a predecessor of the Winona Daily News.
A committee composed almost entirely of young people recently presented a petition with 1,300 signatures to Winona County commissioners asking that work by the architects on the planned three-phase building plan for a county office building be halted.
The petition asked that an expert committee be selected to study the situation, and then the matter be put to referendum vote by the people in the county. Most of the petition signers were youth.
During the past 12 years county voters have defeated three referenda for financing a new structure.
Gregory Bambenek, chairman of the committee of young people, told commissioners the group definitely is not against the construction of a new county building for “we all know how sorely it is needed.”
What they are asking for, he said, is that further study be made of the possibility of renovating the present courthouse building for county government or for other uses so that it can be saved.
Bambenek called the old courthouse the “last remnant of a bygone age in Winona,” and “you, at least. have a memory of these things, but what do your children have?” he asked commissioners.
Bambenek listed alternate uses of the building. For example, he said, a perfect use would be as the Winona County Historical Society Museum. The courtroom might be a concert hall for the Winona Music Guild or any other interested groups. The room, SO by 64 feet, with its four huge columns would, he said be a magnificent ballroom, an opera or theatrical hall or a convention center. He suggested the many “handsome” rooms be rented to organizations for meeting rooms.
“Who wouldn’t prefer 16-foot ceilings, stained glass windows, carved oak woodwork and tiled fireplaces as meeting rooms?” he asked.
He also suggested a cultural or civic center where creative people could display or sell their creations, or a youth rehabilitation center.
Bambenek said he became interested in the situation when he arrived home from school Aug. 15.
Earlier two Winona girls had started the petition but had become discouraged when they obtained few signers house-to-house.’
“I started looking at the building and saw it was beautiful. There were many things I had not recognized or appreciated,” Bambenek said.
“The government is spending millions per hour in Vietnam,” he stated. “We feel it could be better spent preserving our historic county courthouse.” He added federal funds might be available if the building were used as a museum. If the society had a fulltime director it would be eligible for a portion of the $32,000,000 the federal government has set aside for the preservation of historical buildings.
Building more than 80 years old
The Winona County courthouse had its beginnings in action by the County Board, July 26, 1882. By resolution, the board levied a tax of five tenths of a mill for a courthouse sinking fund. The levy was continued yearly and on March 11, 1887, a resolution was adopted for construction.
C.G. Maybury & Son were authorized to draw plans and specifications for the building to cost $100,000.
Plans were accepted in August and bids were advertised for. The contract was let to Munck & Lohse for $103,000, to use Dresbach stone and Duluth brownstone trimmings, the building to be completed Sept. 1, 1889.
On June 20, 1883 the cornerstone was laid. The exterior of the building featured Romanesque stone carvings and mosaic stone inlays. All of the windows were of French glass and the transoms of stained glass. The roof was of black slate, with all flashings, valleys and gutters lined with heavy copper.
The offices all were finished in heavy red m oak, all wainscoted. Every room had a fireplace and carved wood mantel with tiled facing and hearth. The ceilings were 16 feet high. Hallways and stairwells are veneered with oak carvings.
The building was termed as of slow burning construction. The walls are of solid brick and stone, there are wood joists for the floors but ceilings have iron lath. Under every floor are two inches of concrete.
The building has had very little remodeling since it was constructed. Central heating was added, a portion of the district courtroom was remodeled into a law library, the probate courtroom has been remodeled, carpeting has been placed in some areas, new toilet facilities were installed.
The basement has been remodeled for the Department of Social Services, the work including painting, carpeting, and adding conference cubicles.
Walls of the building have been washed and repainted. There has been some furnace repair.
The Grand Tour
This reporter asked for and was taken on a tour through the Winona County courthouse. My tour guide was Commissioner Leo Borkowski, who told of the commissioners’ concern about the cost of remodeling and renovating the present building.
One of the main items for worry is the fact that the vaults housing all of the county’s papers are not fireproof. “If these records were destroyed by fire, many of them would be irreplaceable. It would take many years of costly work, and still some of the records would be lost,” he said.
He also expressed concern about the lack of space — offices are now filled to capacity and there is no space for new offices, or for expanding the present ones.
“Three years ago we asked for a remodeling estimate,” Borkowski said. “At that time the estimate, not including remodeling the fourth floor, was just under $1,000,000.” Costs have risen since then.”
The heating system, a one-line unit, cannot be controled from individual offices. The heat goes from office to office, and if the first office should turn the temperature down to a workable 74 to 76 degrees, the other offices will have lower temperatures.
Fourth floor is a pigeon roost
Now for the trip up into the unfinished fourth floor — now housing a great number of pigions. Although wire netting is placed on outside ledges in an attempt to keep them from entering, they find ways and means. The unfinished floors are covered with a thick coating of pigeon excrement, there are dead birds, live birds, baby birds and old birds.
The janitors cleaned the floor a few months ago — it is covered again. The flooring is rough, there are no walls, and the area is cut up with the huge brick fireplace chimneys. A great area of it is the continuation of the district courtroom walls and ceilings. There is neither electrical wiring nor heating units.
The outer south wall has begun to separate from the inner wall — not from lack of maintenance, but from 80 years of wear and tear. The ceilings are just great wooden beams, which make good perches for the birds. And the birds are everywhere — there seems to be no way of keeping them out.
The third floor which houses the county court facilities is a maze of hallways and offices. A portion of the hall is used to house the files from the probate judge’s offices. The offices are filled to capacity — there is just no space left for files.
The district courtroom with its high ceilings, has a definite acoustical problem. A portion of the room was walled off to make space for a law library. The library space, without a ceiling, seems to act as a vacuum of sorts — attorneys cannot use it when court is in session, every sound is magnified and carries into the courtroom proper. The leaded glass windows have beveled due to the heat of the sun, and the colored glass has faded. According to Borkowski, to replace broken windows with colored glass costs some over $200 each.
Many of the rooms have no electrical outlets, and because of the solid brick and stone walls, any rewiring must be placed on the outside of the wall. Although an additional toilet facility was added, the facilities are still inadequate.
And in the winter, the storm windows are so large it takes two men to put them on. The work must be done on a completely windless day, Borkowski said, otherwise the huge windows act as kites. The second floor, housing all of the other governmental offices also houses the vaults for county papers. The vaults are small, each one has a window which is closed by metal shutters. They are overflowing and stacked ceiling high. Clerks must use ladders to get papers from the top.
There are no public toilet facilities on the floor. The offices are filled to capacity now, and there is no wasted space in most of the offices. The basement floor recently was remodeled to house the Department of Social Services. Remodeling consisted of painting, laying carpeting, placing acoustical panels on the walls, and adding some small conference rooms and a waiting room.
The northeast corner of the basement floor houses the treasurer’s vault. In order to enter the vault, it is necessary to go through the men’s restroom, which means that the area must be scouted before going in — otherwise it could prove embarrassing.
As to the roof of the building, in order to have repair work done a steeplejack must be hired, Borkowski said. Roofers will not allow employees to go up there — it is too dangerous with the slate tiles and the steep turrets. About 25 years ago, commissioners had asked for an estimate to make a flat roof on the building. It was $200,000, he said, and the flat roof would have ruined the lines of the building.
There are two sides to every story. The tiled fireplaces are beautiful as is the carved wood paneling, the stair railings and carved newell posts. The stonework carvings and inlays on the exterior are beautiful. The building has many possibilities.
It was built in a time when the world did not go at as fast a pace as it does today. It is, indeed, a part of the heritage of the people, old and young alike.
Editor’s note: Public sentiment shifted away from demolishing the old courthouse. In December 1970 the structure was placed on the National Resister of Historic Places and in November 1971 voters turned down a bond referendum that would have replaced the old courthouse. The building was remodeled and served until a sprinkler pipe burst in a fourth-floor courtroom over Labor Day weekend 2000. The building was again remodeled and put back into service.