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Second floor opens in Jacksonville historic building

The original Jackson County Courthouse in Jacksonville, the second floor of which has become the new City Hall. (Mail Tribune file photo)

Meetings are being held in the second-floor courtroom space of Jacksonville’s New City Hall, marking completion of a nine-year project that turned the former 1893 Jackson County Courthouse into an administrative center for the town.

“We have brought the use of this building back to the citizens,” said Mayor Dona Bowen. “This building sat empty for so long, and to me an empty building is a dead building. It suddenly became alive again, and we knew we had to do renovation to preserve the building.”

Jackson County turned over possession of the storied building to the city in 2012. Besides serving as county government’s headquarters, it was home to a Southern Oregon Historical Society Museum for multiple decades. Although city offices moved into the lower floor in 2016, use of the second floor had to wait until funding allowed installation of an elevator and restrooms to meet ADA requirements.

City Council sessions and other city meetings had been held in the 1881 Old City Hall until the pandemic moved most of those online. Tentative plans call for resuming council, Planning Commission and other committee and commission meetings in the new space in July or August, depending on state guidelines, said Bowen.

A League of Oregon Cities regional small cities meeting and a committee meeting have been held as test runs of the space, said City Administrator Jeff Alvis.

“I’m just so proud of everyone who was involved in this project from the beginning, particularly (former Mayor) Paul Becker. It was his dream from the beginning,” said Bowen. “Jeff Alvis also deserves a lot of credit for overseeing the project. We did not only a remodel, but historic preservation and restoration, earthquake reinforcement and ADA features.”

About $400,000 was spent on the upstairs remodel. Another $100,000 was spent to install the elevators. Renovation for the downstairs cost about $900,000. The city borrowed the money from the town’s urban renewal agency and will repay the loans with tax increment receipts. Donations also assisted with finishing the second floor, said Bowen.

The nearly decade-long project was not without challenges. Initially some citizens urged the city to sell the building. Plans for installation of an elevator attached to the rear of the building were abandoned in 2018 when bids came in over estimates. In 2019, Britt Festival proposed leasing the second floor for its headquarters, but city councilors decided it should remain a public space.

The former courtroom space features a soaring ceiling and large windows. It measures 41 by 68 feet. Some modern features have been incorporated, including sound panels to control acoustics in the room. The panels were installed so that the original ceiling and medallions for hanging lights are still visible., said Bowen.

“I always say it is simple, but elegant,” said Bowen.

A “prisoners walk” stairway that led from the first floor to the second floor was left in place during the remodel but was glassed in so that it is visible but not usable.

A large desk for use during meetings that sits on a stage is designed so it can be put away, as are other furnishings, said Alvis. That will allow a variety of uses in the space. Maximum capacity has not yet been determined.

Upstairs renovations also include a catering kitchen so that meals can be brought in for groups. The space will be available for nonprofits to hold events, but there won’t be weddings or private gatherings to avoid competition with local businesses that offer those services. Specifics of use policies for the space will need to be approved by City Council, said Bowen.

“Right now, Old City Hall is still in use. It’s a good place for smaller groups,” said Bowen. She noted the sound system at the old site is antiquated. Councilman Ken Gregg is doing research on the possible use of the old building as a museum.

Ideas for incorporating more historical interpretation elements have been brought forward for New City Hall, said Bowen. The downstairs main hallway already houses a collection of over 75 photographs from 1850s to the 1930s depicting the city and its citizens.

“It’s very nostalgic to walk upstairs and imagine everything that happened here,” said Bowen. A fancy ball was the first event held in the space, she said. The 1927 trial of the DeAutremont brothers, who were apprehended for what is termed “the last great train robbery” on Siskiyou Pass in 1923, was the last county action that took place in the courtroom.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.