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Jefferson County officials concerned about courthouse columns

July 14, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Bill Polk, maintenance director of Jefferson County buildings, examine a column supporting the portico atop the Jefferson County Courthouse.
By Richard Belisle, Staff Writer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — What's holding up the four columns supporting the portico atop the Jefferson County Courthouse has county officials worried after 140 years of service.

The eastern-most column is starting to sink by less than an inch, but it concerns Bill Polk, maintenance director of all county buildings.

"It's only about three-fourths of an inch," Polk said. "But that's big compared to the other three that have settled less than a quarter of an inch. We don't know what's under that column, if it was just set down on the ground after the courthouse was burned. We'll have to take core samples of the ground beneath the column, too."

The current courthouse building replaced one in the same spot that was destroyed in the Civil War.

The Jefferson County Commission Thursday gave Polk permission to negotiate with Minghini's General Contractor of Martinsburg, W.Va., to determine the condition of the columns and what needs to be done to keep them safe.

Polk is meeting today with the contractor, an architect and structural engineer to start the process.

Minghini's is the low bidder on a $1.1 million contract to renovate the courthouse exterior, County Administrator Tim Boyde said.

How the columns were constructed in 1872 is a mystery to Polk and structural engineers.

The core samples will tell engineers if the strength of each columns is based on a solid steel beam running up the center, or if the interior is held up with solid brick.

Some initial surface sampling has been done that shows deteriorating bricks, the worst being on the easternmost column. Polk said he sent a probe down into the column, and it showed only brick dust, leaving him to speculate that its interior brick is deteriorating.

A preliminary core sample of the westernmost column shows that it was worked on, possibly in the 1970s, to encase it with some type of polymer-reinforced concrete.

"It's bonded so hard we couldn't dent it with a heavy hammer," Polk said. "This one is all right."

Boyde soothed the concerns of the commissioners about the safety of the columns. While each one holds up several tons of brick walls on top, "that portico is not coming down tomorrow. It will be up well beyond my lifetime."

The goal of the study is to determine the extent of damage and to come up with an estimate on the cost of repairing the columns.

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