Story published: March 12, 2021

A 113-year old county courthouse in southern Minnesota is getting a pricey lifeline. The Martin County Courthouse in Fairmont, Minn., is undergoing a $2.5 million renovation to replace a copper dome and roof.

“I think there’s a lot of pride in that structure and I don’t think anyone would want to see it deteriorate. It represents the county, what it stands for,” said Lenny Tvedten, the executive director of the Martin County Historical Society.

The three-story limestone and sandstone structure was built in 1907. Minneapolis architect Charles E. Bell, known for delivering Beaux Arts and Renaissance style courthouses, was tapped to build one in Martin County that would evoke strength and beauty. Murals entitled “Peace,” “Genius” and “Inspiration,” were commissioned inside a 58-foot-tall dome above a beautiful rotunda. It was put on the National Register of Historical Places in 1977.

The first courthouse dated back to 1862. It was a wooden structure built for $200 on the grounds of Fort Fairmount – a military fortress built as a response to the US-Dakota War of that same year. In 1882, a second courthouse was built for $12,000, but was later condemned.

The current courthouse was built for $125,000. It ended up $25,000 over budget, and was built using techniques and materials that would be astronomical to replace today.

Which is why, in 2018, Martin County embarked on saving it, after major leaking and rust damage threatened the building’s clocktower dome and roof.

“It’s a costly project,” Tvedten said. “But at the same token, when you look at a building on the National Register of Historic Places, in my opinion, it’s money well spent.”

The work is being carried out by architectural and engineering firm ISG in Mankato.

“It is a lovely courthouse. And that’s the thing about southern Minnesota, they have some of the most beautiful courthouses,” said Denis Gardner, National Register Historian with the State Preservation Office.

Gardner said the most striking features are the paired columns and symmetry. Design details like ornamental balustrades on the courthouse, he said, are meant to impress.

“They’re mostly Beaux Arts style, Renaissance style – when you think about that style, you think of classicism,” he said.

Gardner said one interior challenge that historical government buildings have are historical paintings that depict Native Americans.

“There is the mural called “Peace” where you have the Native American in the corner and he is holding plans of the courthouse,” he said. “It gives me the the impression he’s supposed to be thinking, ‘Oh wow, look at this advancement,’ and I think it’s problematic, because I’m not entirely sure he would have been thrilled,” he said.

Gardner does not support removing or hiding these images. But he said he would like to see an interpretation of them at the site, to offer up other voices or impressions.

The renovation is expected to be completed later this year.

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After a $300 million restoration brought many of the Minnesota State Capitol’s features back to life – including the gold horses perched near the dome – controversy swirled over some of the buildings paintings that depict Native Americans in inaccurate ways. Mary Lahammer examined the debate as Governor Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan first took office.

One Greater Minnesota reporter Kaomi Lee is no stranger to touring some of the state’s most historic landmarks. She visited Winona, Minn.’s two historic banks: Merchants National Bank, complete with cathedral-like stained glass windows, and Winona National Bank, known for its classic Prairie School architecture. 

In the summer of 2019, Reporter Kaomi Lee visited another Minnesota’s landmark: the state’s oldest covered bridge in Zumbrota, Minn. After suffering a roof collapse earlier that year, the city had to replace the structure with authentic building materials in an effort to maintain the bridge’s place on the National Register of Historic Places.