Copper railings installed in courthouse roof replacement project

Ten copper railing pieces, weighing 750 pounds a piece, were lifted above the Cascade County Courthouse and guided into place on Friday.

The remaining two railing pieces will be installed later in the project so that the construction crew will still have access to the roof, said Lon Gorsch, the project manager for Renaissance Roofing.

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The $4 million project that started last summer is replacing the century-old copper roof, and repairing the dome.

Brian Clifton, county public works/planning director, said the work is expected to be finished in March, though that’s weather dependent.

Renaissance is also working on the roof for the Wyoming State Capitol and the Boys Town campus in Omaha, Neb.

The weather worn, tarnished and green cooper had been on the courthouse roof for 80-100 years and some of the components were original, Clifton said.

Since the new roof is made of Revere Copper and is 25 percent thinker, Gorsch said, so it should last longer than the usual century lifespan of copper.

The courthouse is a three-story English Renaissance Revival structure and was built in 1901-1903. The building includes four polished granite columns at the front center of the building and the tall copper dome, raised on columns.

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Some of those columns had begun separating from the structure, creating a number of hazards, Clifton said. They were repaired, restored and refinished by Robinson Iron, an Alabama company. The columns are now back in place and the original curved glass windows have been reinstalled in new frames in the dome.

The copper portion of the dome is about 35 feet and the base of the Statue of Justice is 40 feet. The statute itself if 15 feet high.

During World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the dome was used 24 hours a day to watch for enemy aircraft, according state historical site listings.

The new copper won’t turn green either, Clifton and Gorsch said. It will still develop a weather worn patina, but instead it will turn a brownish color and if there is any green, it will be a darker shade, they said.

Since the roof has such a long lifespan, Clifton said the cost per year is less than trying to replace the roof every 20 years with less durable roofing materials.

There’s been a high level of collaboration among the county, Renaissance and the other contractors, Gorsch said.

It’s been helpful as they’re dealing with a 100-year-old substructure. Clifton said they’ve “added value in helping find solutions and collaborating” on any unanticipated issues they found in the historic building.

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Gorsch said their company is based near Chicago and that they’re used to strong winds, sudden snow and bitter temperatures. They’ve been able to work through most of last winter and the wintry days so far this season. Last winter, they built makeshift tents on the roof with space heaters so workers could have some protection from the wind and a chance to warm up as they installed the copper.

The copper rails that were installed Friday include spun spindles that have metal rods running through to provide structure, but the spindles are otherwise hollow.

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The courthouse houses the 8th Judicial District courts, justice court, youth court, treatment court, veterans court, the clerk of court and more.

In the early days, county business was conducted in a small group of offices downtown, but as the county grew and more services were needed, a courthouse was proposed. The building’s construction was a $200,000 bond question on the Nov. 6, 1900 ballot that the voters approved.

Work began in 1901 using gray sandstone that was quarried within six miles of the city. The cornerstone was laid on Nov. 9, 1901 and included a time capsule containing a county history, a copy of the act forming the county, lists of county officials, a history of Company A (Montana’s first U.S. veterans from the Spanish-American War), photographs, newspapers, maps, coins and a U.S. flag. The cornerstone weighed 2,000 pounds.

The carriage entrance was located under the front steps and was converted into a storage area for building engineers when the automobile was invented.