Restoration project gave historic courthouse renewed life


left - The Lapeer County Courthouse, a Greek Revival gem built mostly of white pine, was built in the mid 19th century by pioneer Alvin Hart, and is one of the oldest in the United States.; right - The original jury chairs were salvaged at the historic Lapeer County Courthouse.

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Several years ago, , I took a trip to Lapeer, where my father once worked in the editorial ranks of The Lapeer County Press, in its prime one of the finest weekly newspapers in the nation. I  poked around the quaint city, searching for a family homestead that had given way to modern development.

Just a few blocks away, however, remained a sparkling reminder of the beauty of the past – the Lapeer County Courthouse. Its rebirth was a story I enjoyed covering in September 2007, when there was a courthouse christening the likes of which the state has seldom seen.

It marked a beginning – and an end.

On that day, September 14, 2007, the seven-member Michigan Supreme Court ushered in a new legal era in the heart of Lapeer, the county seat where a heavy dose of history had been in the making thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers.

It also served as a fitting climax to a nearly 20-year ebb-and-flow effort to restore one of the crown jewels of the state’s legal community, otherwise known as the “granddame of county courthouses in Michigan.”

The rebirth of the now 174-year-old Lapeer County Courthouse was celebrated on that “very good” Friday, when the state Supreme Court made some history of its own, convening to hear oral arguments in a weighty appellate case. Afterwards, the justices were the guests of honor at a gala dinner and auction held on the grounds of the magnificently restored county structure that was built in 1846.

“It was a day that was a very long time coming,” said Mike Schlusler, then-chair of the Courthouse Restoration Committee. “There was a true sense of celebration, mixed with a bit of relief that a very long restoration project had come to an end. I doubt if anyone who was involved in the project from the start envisioned that it would take so long to complete.”

The gestation period for the $1.5 million project only seemed as long as the string of hurdles the 24-member Courthouse Restoration Committee had to overcome.

For starters, the place was in shambles, ready for the wrecking ball after years of neglect.

“The city wanted to tear it down to build a parking lot,” Schlusler said, wincing at the thought. “There were a couple of little old ladies in the community here who would have chained themselves to the courthouse if the city’s plan had ever gone that far.”

Thankfully it didn’t, a case instead where “justice” truly prevailed.

But stopping the parking plan in its tracks was just the beginning of a Herculean task ahead.

“The cost of restoring the County Courthouse looked to be prohibitive at the time, but that didn’t stop us from wanting to make it happen,” Schlusler said. “It would have been tragic to lose such an architectural treasure.”

The Lapeer Courthouse was built in the mid-19th century by Alvin Hart, the town’s first settler. According to local historians, Hart platted the village of Lapeer in 1831 and later served in both houses of the state legislature. He sold the structure to the county in 1853 for the tidy sum of $3,000.

The Greek Revival gem is built mostly of native white pine. The façade of the full-height portico has four fluted Doric columns supporting the pediment, according to officials with the Michigan History Division of the Department of State. A three-tiered tower accents the rear of the building, which is the “oldest continuously active courthouse” in Michigan and one of the 10 oldest in the United States. Twin spiral staircases are “another unique architectural feature” of the building, which is treasured as the county’s “most visible landmark and link to the past.”

Laura Barnard, a district court judge in Lapeer for the past 30 years, said the restoration work was conducted in three phases, calling it a “labor of love for me” and other members of the committee.

“We’ve done work as the funds have allowed,” said Judge Barnard. “While the project had its stops and starts over the years, we made steady progress thanks to the support of the community. A number of individuals, organizations, and businesses have really rallied to the cause, making donations big and small to keep this project alive. It really was a grassroots effort.”

Phase one of the project involved scraping and painting the outside of the building that suffered weather damage from age and neglect. The second phase included the interior restoration of the courtroom, stairs, and corridor, while the third phase focused on upgrading the heating and cooling system, electrical service, and restroom accessibility. An elevator also was added to improve accessibility to the courtroom on the second floor.

In 2011, Schlusler and his wife, Deanne, enjoyed a particularly poignant moment in the courtroom when their son, Adam, was sworn in as an attorney by a longtime family friend, Judge Barnard.

The court facility, in the heart of town, has been a popular site for weddings, investitures, mock trials, and memorial services. The Lapeer County Historical Society has displays on the first floor, while the second floor courtroom is the centerpiece of the downtown landmark and it has even provided the setting for a movie.

“We uncovered many treasures during the restoration work,” Barnard reported.

“There are several original stencils on the walls that have been preserved. We were able to salvage the original jury chairs and spectator benches, and years ago we were able to get our hands on the original judge’s chair that a man had in his garage. When you sit in this courtroom, there really is a sense of awe that you feel. It is really spectacular in its simplicity.”


Subscribe to the Legal News!

Full access to public notices, articles, columns, archives, statistics, calendar and more

Day Pass Only $4.95!

One-County $80/year

Three-County & Full Pass also available