Celebrating a courthouse renaissance

County event to showcase latest feature of $1.4 million restoration that began 20 years ago with discovery of a beautiful ceiling hidden for decades

STANDING UNDER the recently restored Miss Columbia mural outisde the Ozaukee County Board Room were (from left) former County Administrator Tom Meaux, County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt and Meaux’s successor, Jason Dzwinel, each of whom have played a role in the $1.4 million restoration of the Historic Courthouse in downtown Port Washington. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

It wasn’t quite like Lucy Pevensie finding the door to Narnia in the back of a wardrobe, but another world opened to Joe Hicks and other county residents in 1999 when he peeked through a ceiling tile in the Ozaukee County Boardroom while doing some repair work.

“Some of the panels were loose — I was more into repairing than maintaining the building back then,” Hicks, the county Administration Center’s building superintendent, said last week. “And I just saw this amazing ceiling covered up. It was just beautiful.” 

Hicks’ discovery of murals that had been hidden for 50 years launched the restoration of the County Board room and other areas of the historic courthouse just in time for the 2001 centennial of the courthouse’s construction. 

The restoration continues today and includes the Miss Columbia mural on the ceiling over the building’s east stairwell. It was not covered by ceiling tiles but was extremely faded from years of being exposed to smoke and light.

“It was really faded. It didn’t look as cool as it does now,” Hicks said.

An open house to show off the Miss Columbia mural will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 13. 

The event is hosted by the county and the Ozaukee County Historical Society.

Former county administrator Tom Meaux, whose office was across the hall, remembers when Hicks saw the murals.

“(Joe) said, ‘Hey Tom, you gotta see this,’” Meaux said last week. 

“Tom got the ball rolling” for the restoration, Hicks said. “He deserves all the credit, along with Jason (Dzwinel),” the current county administrator. “Those two really hit the ground running and got it done.”

It wasn’t that Hicks “discovered” the murals.

After all, Hicks said, the drop ceiling was installed by Leroy Bley, a World War II veteran who worked for his father’s construction company in 1949 and who later became County Board chairman.

“We knew about it,” said Meaux, who today is president of Ansay Holdings. “It’s written up in the historical accounts. But not too many people knew about them.”

The courthouse restoration project to date has cost about $1.375 million. That includes work restoring the clock tower and other exterior work. 

“Grant funds and private donations paid for all of the decorative work and for about half of the total project,” Dzwinel said.  

 The County Board meeting room was restored mostly with private donations and fundraisers while the county invested in improving the mechanics of the room so that today the room resembles what it looked like when the courthouse was built but with all the modern amenities.

Miss Columbia also was restored without expending county funds.

E.G. Wurthmann was the primary artisan responsible for the decorative plaster work and painting in the building. 

The mural was inspired by the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, which was billed as the “World’s Columbian Exposition.”

Miss Columbia was a symbol of American liberty and the song “Hail Columbia” was one of several unofficial National Anthems until 1931 when the “Star-Spangled Banner” was officially recognized.

It remains the official song of the vice president.

The restoration of the Miss Columbia mural and the surrounding plaster and walls began in August 2018.

The restoration was completed by Historic Surfaces of Michigan, which restored the County Board meeting room. 

The large mural, which is painted on canvas, was removed and spread out on a large table and painstakingly restored while the plaster and paint on both the ceiling and walls were repaired and refreshed. It was then reattached to the ceiling. 

Also restored is the committee meeting room next to where the Miss Columbia mural is located.

Three false ceilings were removed to expose a vintage tin ceiling and fully reveal transom windows that light up the room, Hicks said.

 Officials hope to continue the restoration to the first floor where ceiling tiles and paint cover stenciling and tin ceilings.

“I don’t think we’re going to find any ornate murals,” said Hicks, who has worked for the county for 31 years. “But there is stenciling.”

Hicks said one estimate to restore the downstairs areas was less than $60,000.

“It wouldn’t be nearly as expensive,” he said. “For one, we wouldn’t have to erect such high scaffolding.”

Meaux pointed out that many counties and municipalities have torn down their historic buildings, making the historic Ozaukee County courthouse a rare jewel.

“I’m very excited to share it with the community and be a part of it,” he said. “It’s a very special facility. This is something very special.”

Music at Saturday’s event will be provided by bluegrass band Pickin’ Up Speed. Complimentary refreshments will be served.

The Ozaukee County Historical Society also will have historical exhibits on display.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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