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Virginia City, Montana

Virginia City Competing for Dollars 
Story and Photos By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard

February, 2003 

Virginia City Courthouse
The Madison County Courthouse in Virginia City has withstood the test of time, but is in need of repair if officials want to preserve the 125-year-old building.
Dave Shultz, Madison County Commissioner
Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz looks through historic ledger books, housed in the courthouse, which detail the 1875 construction of the building, right down to the size of screws.

MaryAnn O'Malley just has to listen to know when there's a west wind blowing through Virginia City. 

And she doesn't have to look beyond the inside of her windowsill to know when it's snowing outside. 

The windows of her office inside the Madison County Courthouse rattle when the wind blows, and if she moves the old shirt and pair of pants that run along the windowsill, the snow drifts on inside. 

"Without those, I'd freeze to death," said O'Malley, the county's justice of the peace. "It's really bad. In spite of that though, I really do love this building. It's a treasure, and it really does need to be restored and protected." 

Dedicated on July 4, 1876, the Madison County Courthouse is the oldest working courthouse in the state. The brick building has survived earth quakes and a major fire during its 125-year history, but the weather and time has taken its toll. 

Over the years, Madison County has found a way to put a new roof on the building and shore up some immediate needs. But in a county with 6,000 residents, money only stretches so far. Now the county is asking for a federal appropriation of $350,000 to help fund an estimated $536,000 project to maintain the historical integrity of the building. 

"We're slowly losing this building," said Kim Miller, the county's grant writer. "We're beyond the point we can just slap on some paint. To maintain the historical integrity of the building, we need to do some restoration work." 

The county's at a crossroads as it considers the future of the court house. It can either choose to modernize, which would mean replacing windows that have lasted more than a century, or it can find a way to restore the building and retain its historical qualities. 

"We've looked at taking the windows out and replacing them with modern windows, but we've been encouraged by some people in the state to take a different route," said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz. "We've been told we'd lose the historical integrity of the building if we changed the windows. 

"And so we have to weigh the facts," Schulz said. "Do we want to maintain this as a historical building with its original windows or do we want our people and equipment sitting in front of windows with snow coming in." 

With some help from the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, the county put together a project to restore and repair the most weathered portions of the building. It would include restoring the woodwork around the windows, refinishing the black walnut inside banisters, repairing the soffit and fascia and sealing the outside brick. An electrical upgrade is also planned. 

"There is an issue with the electricity," said Schulz. "The building was never wired for computers." 

The county has received encouragement from the Montana Congressional delegation on the proposed $350,000 federal grant, said Miller. 

"We've talked with legislative aides of all three congressmen and it appears that we have good support," she said. "It's still too early in the process to know how that will go'85we have requested that people interested in the project write letters of support." 

Construction on the Madison County Courthouse began in 1875 just down the road from the first county courthouse in Montana. It pre-dates the brick courthouse in Bannock. 

The county commission ledgers outline the debate about the building. The ledgers also contain the carefully constructed plans developed by the county commission for the new courthouse. It took six full pages to outline those details. 

"It describes exactly what they wanted, right down to the size of screws to be used," said Miller. "Most of the material came from local sources, including the timbers in the attic and the bricks that were fired in Central City." 

"It was overbuilt, but that's probably why it's still here," she said. 

Madison County is finding itself competing for some of the same funds that the state of Montana is looking at for restoration efforts in Virginia and Nevada cities, said Schulz. 

"We're all looking at the same pots for historic preservation," he said. "Madison County, with a population of 6,000, is responsible for the structures as well as the Thompson Hickman Museum and the schoolhouse." 

"That does make it difficult," Schulz said. "We don't want to be in conflict with the state's efforts. We realize how valuable Virginia and Nevada cities are both to our history, as well as our economic future for the surrounding area." 

The county was therefore very careful in not asking for more than what was absolutely necessary to get the job done. 

"We were told that if we'd asked for $1 million, our chances may have been better," said Miller. "We didn't want to ask for more than we needed." 

Time isn't on the county's side. 

"We recognize that every year we wait, that exposed wood trim, soffits and braces are becoming more and more degraded," said Schulz. "There will be a point that the material will be beyond restoration and we'll end up replacing it, rather than restoring it." 

"The clock is ticking down," he said. 

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.

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