Preservationists sue to save Rock Island Courthouse
Landmarks Illinois leads effort to stave off demolition
By Ted Cox
Landmarks Illinois and other preservationist groups filed suit Wednesday to halt the imminent demolition of the old Rock Island County Courthouse.
Rock Island County Chief Judge Walter Braud filed a court order last month approving the immediate demolition of the building, which has been replaced in the county legal system by a new Justice Center Annex built next door, but the suit charged the County Board and Public Building Commission with “racing to demolish” the courthouse, “in disregard of the review and consultation process” established in state law.
Constructed in 1896, the building was ruled eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, and last year Landmarks Illinois placed it on its list of Most Endangered Historic Places.
“Landmarks Illinois is bringing this lawsuit to protect the public’s inalienable right to due process,” said Bonnie McDonald, president of the nonprofit. “The suit also allows additional time to call attention to the reuse potential for the courthouse, which could benefit county taxpayers and preserve an irreplaceable architectural and cultural asset in the community.”
“Landmarks Illinois is bringing this lawsuit to protect the public’s inalienable right to due process.”
Bonnie McDonald (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
The organization was joined in filing the suit by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Rock Island Preservation Society, the Moline Preservation Society, the Broadway Historic District Association, and Frederick Shaw, a local bondholder on the new Justice Center Annex.
In addition to accusing the Rock Island County Board and Public Building Commission of ignoring state law in the rush to raze the building, the suit charges that they’re misusing funds in spending money earmarked for the Justice Center to pay for the demolition.
Elizabeth Merritt, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, called demolition “unnecessary,” adding that it “violates state historic preservation law and would squander an opportunity to reuse the building.” According to Merritt, “Alternatives to preserve the historic Rock Island County Courthouse are viable and should be fully explored.”
The suit charges: “The demolition of the historic courthouse would cause irreparable harm for which there would be no adequate remedy.” It cites how it was built by Frederick Gunn and Louis Curtis, of “the noted architectural firm of Gunn and Curtis,” and is “considered a significant example of Spanish Renaissance or Roman-style architecture.”
Braud, however, ruled that the building presented “a real and present danger to the 1,000 persons per week that enter the newly constructed Annex,” according to WQAD-TV, and there is “no just cause or legal reasons” to delay. Yet Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms refused to grant a demolition permit until state agencies endorsed it, backed by Alderman Dylan Parker, who represents the Broadway neighborhood.
The suit charges various violations of state preservation law, as well as “misappropriation of excess proceeds” in construction of the Justice Center Annex. It seeks a temporary restraining order and injection against demolition, and at very least calls for the public bodies to revisit the issue and abide by state law.
According to Landmarks Illinois, it calls on the county to “engage with the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the Rock Island community in a good-faith effort to find a reuse for the historic courthouse building, including actively pursuing proposals from the private market. Illinois law requires such an effort to avoid the unnecessary destruction of historic resources without the consideration of alternatives. This would also avoid the demolition costs, create jobs and put the building on the tax rolls.”
Wheaton, recently named the best place to live in Illinois by Money magazine, has preserved its old DuPage County Courthouse as what is now the center of a vital condominium development.
According to the suit, it was only in December that the courthouse ceased to be used in local legal proceedings.