Commissioners push for study on courthouse’s water leaks

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Water leaks are common inside the Blair County Courthouse.

But for the first time, commissioners are interested in more than patchwork repairs.

“You don’t want another Highland Hall,” Altoona artist and architectural conservator John Rita said Tuesday when urging commissioners to consider the recommendations in a study he and Altoona architect David B. Albright prepared.

Highland Hall, the county’s former annex building, also suffered from water leaks, water in the basement and related deterioration. The county sold the structure in November 1998 after building an addition to the courthouse, which accommodated those who worked in the annex.

While meeting Tuesday, commissioners directed Rita and Albright to pursue a more detailed investigation that will identify the extent of the courthouse’s water damage, options to address it and related recommendations.

Their work so far identified water damage on every elevation of the older section of the courthouse and identified “ineffective or damaged drainage systems,” in addition to winter ice jams on the roof as the culprits.

Additional research will likely involve a specialist familiar with options and rules concerning historic structures. The courthouse, built in 1877, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976, and it’s part of Hollidaysburg’s historic district.

As for a projected cost, Albright declined to be specific until learning more. The work so far has identified interior damages and corresponding exterior areas, but more study, he said, will identify the extent of water damage within courthouse walls.

Further study is also expected to identify if other factors, such as condensation from an air conditioning unit or a plumbing matter, factor into the interior damage.

Commissioner Diane Meling, a former Hollidaysburg borough manager and zoning officer who was a member of the Hollidaysburg Historic Preservation Commission, said she has long been interested in measures to address the courthouse water leakage.

After last year’s sale of Valley View Home, Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. suggested using some of the proceeds to repair the courthouse windows or tackle other longterm maintenance projects.

The options for covering the cost, Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti said, are the use of the Valley View proceeds or a bond issue. Counties typically use bond issues to spread the cost of a specific purchase or project over several years.

Tomassetti also asked about the urgency of the project.

Albright said that without repairs, the deterioration will continue.

“Based on the visual evidence, I think there’s an urgency,” Albright told Tomassetti.

To address water leaks, the study recommended replacing damaged and missing downspouts, removing debris or the reasons for debris found in gutters and redesigning portions of the drainage system so it can handle large amounts of stormwater. An electric ice-melt system could keep ice and snow from backing up on the roof.

The study said the courthouse’s main roofing system is in “good condition.” That includes the main slate roof over Courtroom 2 which borders Allegheny Street, the roof of the front towers and the flat roof area, which features a rubber membrane.

“We saw places where the [county] maintenance staff has been putting out fires for years,” Albright told commissioners. “And it’s good that they’ve been doing that because otherwise, it would be worse.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.