Napa County has painstakingly put its earthquake-shattered historic courthouse back together again and the building is ready for judicial action.
The 1879 courthouse is to reopen on Monday. People will once again enter through the arching porch at 825 Brown St. Judges will once again swing their gavels and oversee civil cases there.
With that, one of the most iconic examples of damage from the Aug. 24, 2014 South Napa earthquake will have been set right. Photos of the courthouse’s cracked exterior and the gaping hole under the roof line near the word “Justice” flashed around the world in the quake’s wake.
No trumpets or speeches will greet the building’s reopening on Monday, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony to happen sometime later this month. It will simply be business-as-usual as the county regains another piece of normality after one of its biggest disasters.
The courts will no longer have to improvise to find spaces for the historic courthouse services, such as using the jury assembly room in the Hall of Records for a temporary courtroom. Come Monday, civil and probate matters will be heard in historic courtrooms A and B. Family law matters will be heard in courtroom C.
“It’s been a long four-and-a-half years and we greatly appreciate the spirit and dedication exhibited by everyone in continuing to serve the public after such a significant natural disaster and lengthy recovery,” Presiding Judge Elia Ortiz said in a press release.
The quake left the inside courthouse a chaos of cracked plaster and flaking lead paint. The building’s damaged, brick front wall was held in place largely by its outer shell and interior plaster, requiring giant metal beams for stabilization.
One reason the repairs took so long is the building’s place on the National Register of Historic Places. The county worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state and consultants to make certain a renovated courthouse would still be a historic courthouse.
County Public Works Director Steve Lederer walked through the rebuilt courthouse on Friday, among the first times in four-and-a-half years that one could do so without wearing a hardhat. The goal was to make the courthouse look like it did before the shaking began, he said.
Black-and-white photos of judges once again adorn the walls of one courtroom. Touch-up work remains to be done during the coming weeks, but the courthouse in general looks like its old self.
There are unseen differences. Lederer said the building is stronger than the version battered by the quake.
“It’s a combination of the materials we use to reconstruct, as well as stronger members, which are beams and those kinds of things,” Lederer said. “The original construction of the courthouse was simply brick. We know brick doesn’t fare well during earthquakes.”
Collapsed brick wall sections were rebuilt using concrete blocks integrated with the remaining bricks and finished to match the stucco shell. Other damaged brick walls were covered with a fiber grid and coated with sprayed-on mortar.
“There are seismic upgrades that can be done in historic buildings,” Lederer said.
The courthouse stabilization and repair will total about $23 million, Lederer said. Most of the money is coming from insurance and the federal and state governments.
By comparison, contractor John Cox of San Francisco in 1878 successfully bid $50,900 to build the courthouse.
Napa County held a groundbreaking for the courthouse on Sept. 21, 1878, though work was already underway. People gave speeches and a choir sang on a platform erected over the building’s substructure. Cox was manufacturing bricks for the building at the old brickyard at the head of Seminary Street.
By April 1879, the courthouse janitor was cleaning the windows and preparing to have the floors scrubbed down before furniture and carpets were installed. Local newspapers from that year archived by Napa County Library make no mention of a grand opening celebration.
Napa County built the Hall of Records with today’s jury assembly room west of the courthouse in 1916. A 1978 addition replaced an 1878 jail between the two buildings, according to the National Register of Historic Places listing.
The historic courthouse, the Hall of Records building and the addition form one continuous building. Only the historic courthouse portion closed because of earthquake damage.