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Watch now: Rock Island County board approves agreement for recordation of courthouse prior to demolition
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Watch now: Rock Island County board approves agreement for recordation of courthouse prior to demolition

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Retired architect Bill Handel shows off his idea for restoring the missing dome on the old Rock Island County courthouse. He would construct a metal frame outlining the silhouette of the former dome and line it with white lights. Handel presented the idea for a third time to board member Oct. 19, 2021.

Demolition of the old Rock Island County courthouse quietly moved forward Tuesday night as county board members approved a memorandum of agreement between the county, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office stating a recordation of the historic building must take place prior to its demolition.

The recordation of the courthouse will be a detailed, historic record of the building for posterity — simply put, a record stating the building once existed, with photos and measurements of what it looked like. The process was mandated as part of a ruling by the Third District Appellate Court in response to an appeal filed by Landmarks Illinois and other plaintiffs in the Feb. 2019 lawsuit that has stalled demolition for the past three years. 

Board members Edna Sowards and Bob Westpfahl opposed the agreement; Drew Clevenger was absent; and Ed Langdon abstained.

Absent were the loud voices of protesters and preservationists that filled the county board chamber at countless meetings since the board voted in July 2018 to demolish the historic courthouse at 210 15th St.

For more than three years, county residents demanded, negotiated and then pleaded with county leaders not to raze the grand, four-story structure built between 1895 and 1897. "Save Our Courthouse" yard signs lined streets, protest rallies were held, lawsuits were filed and lost.

The courthouse became a key issue in county board elections. Board Chairman Richard Quijas Brunk nearly lost his March 2020 primary election and seat on the board over the matter, winning by just 10 votes.

Retired architect Bill Handel shows off his idea for restoring the missing dome on the old Rock Island County courthouse. He would construct a metal frame outlining the silhouette of the former dome and line it with white lights. Handel presented the idea for a third time to board member Oct. 19, 2021.

In the end, only two longtime supporters of the courthouse showed up Tuesday night to make final pitches to board members to restore and reuse the courthouse. 

"Three and a half years ago I came up with a design to inexpensively make a modification to correct the lack of a dome on the courthouse," said retired architect Bill Handel as he held up a large display board with a photo of the courthouse. Atop the building was his rendering of what the courthouse would look like with a steel frame mimicking the silhouette of the former dome, lined in white lights. 

"If this were done, I think people coming down the (Centennial) Bridge would give a very positive view of Rock Island County," Handel said. "If we did nothing but add that, plus put a roof on it and reestablish the exterior, we'd have something we could be proud of. Then we wait until the time comes to turn it into office space.

"What we have right now with the old courthouse is a blank slate," he said. "Rock Island deserves better."

Mike Baxter, of Muscatine, has long proposed to turn the old courthouse into a museum about the Mississippi River and its history. 

"Demolishing the courthouse before a federal review of this (National Register of Historic Places) eligible property can keep the county from receiving federal funds for constructing and operating programs," Baxter said. 

Rock Island County State's Attorney Dora Villarreal said federal grants were unrelated to the pending demolition of the courthouse. 

The Appellate Court said the Historic Preservation Act applies and that the county must complete a consultation process with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The recordation is the result of that consultation process outlined by state statute. 

"Landmarks Illinois has read the memorandum of agreement and is disappointed that demolition of the Rock Island County Courthouse is allowed to proceed with recordation of the building as the only stipulation," said Frank Butterfield, chief operating officer for Landmarks Illinois. "Landmarks Illinois stands by our years-long advocacy efforts to ensure that the Rock Island County Board followed state preservation law as the county sought to destroy an important part of Rock Island's history.

"The state law defines a process to explore and evaluate alternatives to the demolition of the historic courthouse, and we remain disheartened by the Rock Island County Board's refusal to meaningfully pursue any option other than demolition," Butterfield said. "Landmarks Illinois and co-plaintiffs clearly established that there was interest in private reuse and reinvestment of the historic courthouse, and the county's own documents confirmed reuse would be less expensive than demolition and new construction. Despite this, the county continues to move forward in favor of tearing down the irreplaceable historic building using taxpayer dollars."

Despite the county's victories in court and pending demolition of the courthouse, Butterfield said the Appellate Court's ruling "has set a positive precedent for state agencies charged with preservation should Rock Island County or another local government attempt to circumvent the law again.

"It is also our hope and expectation that those state agencies reflect on this case in the future and take a stronger stance on protecting our historic places."

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