Study done to find source of recent water damage

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The Blair County Courthouse has had water leaks for many years.

But it was water damage to a portrait of former county Judge Thomas C. Hare, hanging at the rear of the courthouse’s most ornate courtroom, which prompted Altoona conservator John Rita and Altoona architect David B. Albright to suggest a study into the source and extent of the water damage.

Hare’s portrait had to be removed immediately, Rita said, or restoration would have been impossible.

“Paintings from that era, including portraits like this one, were often glued right to the wall, and in this case, an exterior wall,” Rita said. “And because of the leaks that transpired there, the water went right through the plaster and into the painting.”

While Rita is working on the portrait’s restoration in his workshop, he and Albright are making progress on related work outlined in a $34,100 contract commissioners recently approved. As called for in the contract, they are assembling a team of experts who will further examine the water leaks, the options for repairs and suggest who has the expertise to work on the historic stone structure built in 1875-76.

“It’s not everyday you work with materials such as slate, copper and things like that,” Albright said.

While the cost of addressing the water damage has yet to be calculated, commissioners have offered strong support in favor of measures to stop the water leakage.

Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti has referred to the project as something commissioners cannot afford to ignore because such action will lead to more damage and more expense.

Commissioners Diane Meling and Ted Beam Jr. are also interested in addressing the water leaks.

“And I think the public is supportive too,” Beam said. “They want this courthouse to be maintained.”

Albright said an estimated cost should be available about the end of June, after specialists have time for close-up detailed examinations of damage and conditions.

Solicitor Nathan Karn, who reviewed the contract with Rita and Albright, said commissioners will be able to advertise for bids on general construction work associated with the project. But they will have leeway, Karn said, to negotiate with specialists who can handle specific tasks or work with specific materials.

“You typically have four contractors for any project you bid,” Karn said. “But for this, we could have 10 to 12 contractors.”

While commissioners have yet to identify the money to pay for this work, they’ve suggested that the expense could be covered through a bond issue or loan. Proceeds from the sale of Valley View Home might be another possibility.

The study that Rita and Albright completed for the county found the courthouse’s main roofing system to be in good condition, including the main slate roof over the portion of the courthouse bordering Allegheny Street, where water typically infiltrates into the structure. The study also found a flat roof area with a rubber covering to be in good condition.

“The damages have occurred,” the study concluded, “because of ineffective or damaged drainage systems.”

The study also blames winter ice dams on the roof as a contributing factor.

Photographs included with the study show interior damage includes peeling paint, patched plaster, fallen plaster and water-damaged window frames in Courtroom 2 next to Allegheny Street.

The exterior damage, based on photographs submitted with the study, shows problems with roof flashing, shingle damage, damage to mansard slates from a build-up of ice, a tree overhanging a gutter, debris in some gutters, damage to copper drainage areas, some missing mortar joints and cracks in others, and missing portions of downspout drainage systems.

The study, so far, has recommended use of an electric ice-melt system for the courthouse roof. After further study, it’s expected that additional recommendations will outline repairs to the building’s drainage system, along with masonry repairs, repointing and interior repairs.

As part of the restoration work on the Hare portrait, Rita said he will install a moisture barrier to the back of the portrait. That will provide protection, he said, no matter where the portrait hangs.

Albright said he is confident that measures can be taken to stop the source of water infiltration. And if the county embraces an ongoing maintenance program after making repairs, then Albright predicts that the courthouse will remain in good condition.

“The ongoing maintenance program will be key … and the solution to going forward,” Albright said. “It’s one thing to know that there’s a leak somewhere and to send maintenance to fix it. But the problems have been snowballing, especially in those least traveled areas where people don’t go.”