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San Juan County Proceeds with Courthouse Preservation Efforts
Jun 13, 2024
By San Juan County
The County is seeking grant funding to protect and preserve the historic courthouse.
SAN JUAN COUNTY, WA. June 13, 2024 - San Juan County is taking steps to protect the historic courthouse in Friday Harbor. After a 2022 study deemed the building “structurally deficient” the County is seeking grant funding to secure this valuable piece of local history.

Built in 1906 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the courthouse holds more than a century of County history and currently houses the District Courtroom and staff and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office staff.

“While most buildings in the islands are made of wood and relatively resilient to quakes, these sorts of older masonry buildings are often vulnerable without modern reinforcement,” said the County’s Emergency Management Director Brendan Cowan. “This is a great opportunity for the County to lead by example by taking a critical look at our buildings and addressing identified deficiencies.”

In 2022, the County commissioned a FEMA-funded seismic study that revealed the Courthouse’s construction would struggle to withstand the impacts of an earthquake. Despite past efforts to brace the masonry, install steel support beams, and repair mortar joints, the building remains in need of retrofits. In order to protect the historic building and the staff and public who use it daily, the County engaged with an engineering firm to develop a remediation plan to address the deficiencies noted in the seismic study. That draft seismic plan was completed and reviewed by Council in April of 2024.

“The Courthouse is effectively unreinforced masonry,” said Facilities Director Greg Sawyer about the findings of the remedy report. “In today’s world, you would have lots of rebar integrated into that masonry to make it much stronger. But that wasn’t common practice back in the early 1900s.”

Other deficiencies include:
•Excessive height-to-thickness ratio in wall proportions that could lead to failure during earthquake shaking.
•The floorplates are most likely unconnected for transfer of seismic forces to the shear walls. It is also unlikely, yet unknown if, the exterior walls are anchored for resisting out-of-plane forces from the exterior walls at the floorplates with anchors that are developed into the diaphragm.
•Concrete and steel beams that support the floors and roofs at the unreinforced masonry walls do not have independent secondary columns for support of vertical loads. This is not compliant since seismic damage to the masonry walls could result in loss of support for the floor second floor and roof.

The Draft Seismic Remediation Plan for the Historic Courthouse proposes the addition of a concrete wall inside the courthouse to secure the building. A one-foot thick wall of concrete and rebar would reinforce the building from the foundation to the roof.

“According to the draft report, this will be the simplest and most discrete way to maintain the integrity and character of the historic building,” said Sawyer. “None of the retrofits will be visible from the outside and the interior finishes will reflect the current plaster work.”

The remediation workplan and design will be subject to code and permit review by a number of partner agencies at the state and local levels, including historic preservation organizations. The County’s next steps include going out for bid and applying for grant funding from WA State Historic Courthouse Preservation Grant Program. If successful, the grant period would begin in January of 2025 with the requirement to complete work by June 30 of 2027.

“The two reports have really opened our eyes to the state of our historic courthouse,” said councilmember Christine Minney. “Knowledge is power. Now that we know better, we need to do better when it comes to the safety and longevity of our County buildings. I’m thankful for the opportunity to apply for funding to help our County protect this valuable piece of history and secure it for County operations for years to come.”