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State of Illinois to require photos, records of old Rock Island County Courthouse be created before demolition

"If the building's going to be gone, then we need to document what was there, how it was used," a local historian and preservationist said.

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — UPDATE: The Rock Island County Board voted to approve a memorandum from the state of Illinois outlining what must be done for the recordation of the old county courthouse. It passed 19-3, with one board member abstaining and one member absent. 

The board will now seek proposals from a state list of certified recordation contractors. According to Board Chairman Richard Brunk, the recordation timeframe will depend on how soon the selected contractor is able to be onsite. Once the terms of the memorandum are complete, demolition of the old courthouse will begin. 

"Once the demolition is complete, Courthouse Square will become a greenspace, and remain the seat of county government, as it has been since the 1840s," Brunk said in a statement to News 8. "Eventually the long-term goal is to utilize at least some of the property in the effort to consolidate facilities and create operational efficiencies."

ORIGINAL: The Rock Island County Board will consider a memorandum from the state of Illinois during the Oct. 19 meeting stating the county must complete a historic recordation of the old courthouse before demolition can take place. 

The agreement is between the county, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). In November 2017, the old courthouse qualified for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the SHPO, and due to this, it's now recognized as a historic structure that must be recorded for posterity. A recordation is a collection of measured drawings, photographs and written historical and architectural information for structures and sites. 

"There is a strong, and I was one of them, that wanted to sell rather than demolish, and I do want to point out that probably no one wants to demolish it," said county board member Drue Mielke. "This is just a historical record that's needed for preservation, although we're not preserving the building."

The memo provides a detailed outline of what that recordation will look like. It is to be completed by a historical contractor. It includes:

  • taking photos of the interior and exterior using a large-format film camera; 
  • sketches of the building's current condition; 
  • a historic narrative and an architectural description written on archival bond paper; 
  • any original and/or historic drawings of the building; 
  • original field notes, such as field sketches, laser-scan information and photogrammetric data information; 
  • and historic images and maps.

"If the building's going to be gone, then we need to document what was there, how it was used," said historian Gretchen Small.

Small is the Director of Programs and Collections at Deere-Wiman House and Butterworth Center. She said she was "thrilled" to hear about the recordation. 

"It was instrumental in everything for county history," Small said about the old courthouse. "It really was identifiable to every person in Rock Island County."

She explained how recordation, especially through photography, is an important way to learn about history. Using old photographs, Small said people can learn about the construction style, how people used to live or how a building was used. 

"As a historian and a preservationist, I hate to see any building go," she said. "I know that's going to happen to many of our buildings, but if it's going to happen, then we need to document what was there for future generations, so that when they see a modern new courthouse, they don't think that's what we always had. They need to be able to go back and say, 'Okay, where did my ancestors go?'"

She was also glad to see that a large-format film camera would be required to document the building. 

"It just gives you that much higher resolution, and then it's easier to preserve for longer periods," Small said. "You can then take that and have a digital file. ... So if you've got a chance to start off with higher resolution, do it."

The old courthouse has sat vacant for several years and is starting to deteriorate, so it's not in the same state as when it was an active courthouse, but that's part of its history, Small said. 

"It's been a part of our local history for several years now of one group fighting to save it, and others feeling no, we can't save it, and so it's good to document recent history too, not only long ago," she said. "You'll still be able to see the structure, the beauty of the building through those photos. There's an artistic quality to that deterioration too that's important to preserve."

Once the recordation contractor is finished, the photos and information will be submitted to the SHPO. The SHPO will then submit them to the Heritage Documentation Programs in the National Park Service to be placed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill. 

Upon completion, the county can move forward with demolishing the old courthouse building. Mielke didn't know what the timeline for recordation could look like, but he said he expects demolition could begin next year.