Courthouse for Rent

The future looks bleak for what is perhaps the most unloved courthouse in Colorado. Empty for a decade now, the ninety-year-old Arapahoe County Courthouse sits on the east side of downtown Littleton, hemmed in by a jail and a decrepit office building and partially hidden by an asbestos-tainted addition. Aside from housing some old court files and holding the occasional library book sale, the building sits empty.

Newly elected Arapahoe County Commissioner John Brackney, one of the few who love the ugly duckling, wants to restore the building, but he's not getting much sympathy.

"Not only is it pricey, as all historical renovations are, but no one can articulate a use for the building," says county commissioner Steve Ward, adding that he doesn't even favor spending money to study the feasibility of restoration.

A few strong feelings on the issue are directed at Brackney rather than the courthouse itself. Former commissioner Tom Eggert, the very man who encouraged Brackney to run, thinks the young commissioner is wasting his time. "It's not an architectural gem," Eggert says. "If you just walk through, it's a heck of a lot of expense, and you can build a new building for a lot less. The commissioner should spend time on things of more value to his constituents."

Charles Emley, a former city council member and Littleton mayor, supports the idea--but only "as long as it isn't public money. I think it's a great idea to restore that, and that's more worthy than many of the things we've restored in the metro area. But I don't believe taxes should be spent on restoration."

Still, Brackney envisions a great future for the building. He wants a restored courthouse, complete with coffee shops and bookstores, to serve as an anchor for downtown Littleton. "Is it the most important thing?" he says. "No. But if we tear it down, our own future is lacking."

The problem is whether anyone will step in to subsidize the endeavor. Projected renovation costs of nearly $5 million may scare away private developers--not to mention the fact that one of the buildings next door to the courthouse is a bustling county jail. Some argue that the government should retain use of the building, but Ward says the county has no use for it. Littleton officials have expressed an interest in converting one of the building's three floors into courtrooms, but they don't want to be stuck with an old derelict.

"We want Littleton to take it, and Littleton wants us to fix it up before we give it to them," says county commission chair Polly Page.

Before the old courthouse can be saved--or even fully seen--an annex that obscures the entire west face of the building will have to go. "It's just a liability," Brackney says of the annex. "It has no architectural value; it's asbestos-ridden. Let's tear it down."

No one disagrees with that assessment. But Bob Patterson, director of the county's support-services department, says it would take half a million dollars to remove the asbestos and demolish the annex. After that, renovation of the old building would run between $4.3 million and $4.5 million. Most agree that private developers will be skittish about taking on redevelopment costs.

Mike Massey, who chairs a nonprofit Littleton historic-preservation group, supports the idea "provided it could be done within reason. The expense of doing renovation is going to be so significant, for any private company to come in is not fiscally sound."

So while Brackney dreams of matching grants and full restoration, taking even the first step is proving difficult. But in the courthouse's early years, the public's attitude toward the building was far more appreciative. Littletonians were almost ridiculously proud of their new civic treasure back in 1908, when a local newspaper gave each floor of the building a personality. "I am the voice of the Cupola!" the article exclaimed. "I stand for distant outlook; for broad, inspiring vision. From the high turret of upright character look out upon the mountains of richest thought."

The ugly annex with pink marble was tacked on in 1949; it now obscures the side of the courthouse that faces downtown Littleton and the mountains. In subsequent years, a green-tiled Social Services building and a stark county jail were built adjacent to the courthouse, hiding two other sides of the original building. Finally, in 1987, the courthouse and its annex closed. "When we pulled out, Littleton hated our guts--450 employees who were eating downtown were gone," recalls Bob Burnet, head of the county's maintenance staff.

Since then, the whole county complex has deteriorated. The county recently budgeted $175,000 to demolish the green-tiled office building.

Up in the courthouse cupola, amid the dead pigeons and their droppings, the walls are lined with signatures and dates from as early as the 1910s. Burnet explains that the county didn't have enough funds to buy furniture when the building was completed, so commissioners charged a nickel for people to sign their names. He used to be able to see his father's and his grandfather's names, but many names have eroded. Reverence for the building seems to have eroded along with them.

Commissioner Debra Vickrey says the county won't support saving the building unless public supporters pull together and spearhead a restoration project. And that seems unlikely. "I think most people are not really concerned about historic preservation," Vickrey says. "They would much rather us build two more lanes of highway.

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T.R. Witcher