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Oliver: Cautious optimism for Old Courthouse project

When I lived in Woodstock, one of my favorite ways to while away an afternoon was to walk around the Square.

There’s something magical about the place, something rooted in the past and yet still bustling and vibrant, particularly during festivals and the weekly farmers market.

I know I’m not alone in this, since even Hollywood saw the Square’s potential and featured it in the film “Groundhog Day.”

I guess it comes down to character, and the Square is full of it.

That’s in no small part because of historic buildings such as the Opera House and the Old McHenry County Courthouse.

So it’s with particular interest that I am following the events surrounding the Old Courthouse.

The building, which was opened in 1858, was used by the county until the 1970s, when county government was moved to Route 47 and Ware Road. The structure then was sold to private investors.

In the years since, the Old Courthouse has fallen into disrepair.

Reporter Chelsea McDougall took a tour of the building recently and found water damage, peeling paint, cracked steps, evidence of trespassing and an ongoing pigeon problem.

But the structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, clearly is worth saving.

It was designed by famed architect John Mills Van Osdel, who also is responsible for Rush Medical Center and The Palmer House in Chicago.

The city already has spent $238,175 from its tax increment financing district to buy the property and make a few repairs.

The Old Courthouse actually was donated to the city last year, but it became entangled in a legal dispute. So the city wound up acquiring the property at a sheriff’s auction.

There is still a lot of work to be done; an architect hired by the city put together a 70-page report with the details. The estimated cost: $4.7 million.

The city has recommended spending about $2 million over five years to make the most-needed repairs.

Grant money also is possible, and the city is pursuing grants to make immediate repairs to the courthouse’s front steps and the dome.

The rest of the money would come from a private investor or investors.

I have to say that I share Woodstock officials’ enthusiasm for the potential of the building. In the right hands, historic buildings throughout the country have been given new life.

Some of the possibilities mentioned for the Old Courthouse are office space, retail establishments and condominiums.

However, the city must proceed cautiously and be careful not to allow the Old Courthouse to become its own version of “The Money Pit.”

A careful balance must be struck between preserving the past and doing what’s fiscally responsible for the present and future.

Yet, the Square is special in large part because of its history, of which the Old Courthouse plays an important role.

“I can’t imagine the Square without it,” city planner Nancy Baker told McDougall.

Neither can I.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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