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By Cathie Rowand
Water leak repairs have been made at the Allen County Courthouse. A water leak has caused some damage above the war murral on the west side of the rotunda.

Visible damage to Allen County Courthouse's ornate artwork demands attention

Just above and to the right of the mural "War", there is visible damage to the ornate artwork donning the massive dome inside the Allen County Courthouse.

A national historic landmark, meaning it is not just our treasure, the Beaux Arts-style building is 112 years old. So with that considered, it is in remarkable shape.

But given the amount of money spent on its renovation and restoration in the past 20 years, more than $10 million, those responsible for its upkeep want to make sure it remains as it is - a glorious centerpiece to Fort Wayne's downtown.

The damage to the rotunda was first noticed about two years ago, and since that time, many engineers and artists have looked at it, assuring the Courthouse Preservation Trust the damage is not to the mural itself, said Robyn Zimmerman, the trust's executive director.

According to the Courthouse Preservation Trust, the Charles Holloway-painted murals suffered damage with prior efforts at restoration and had been coming loose from the walls because of water damage. Restoring them one-square-inch at a time cost the county $1.4 million.

As in the past, the new little spot of damage is largely believed to have been caused by water, but appears to be confined to the glue or the plaster in the wall, rather than to the murals themselves.

The artist who restored the murals told the county the damage can and should be repaired, Zimmerman said.

"We knew it wasn't the sky is falling kind of thing," she said.

But scheduling repairs in the building is almost always problematic. The expansive rotunda, which extends well past the three stories available in the building, would need to house extensive scaffolding. Such a structure and the work that would accompany it could be very disruptive to what goes on regularly in the building, she said.

Last month, work was done on the clock faces that occupy each of the four sides of the top of the building, the last part of another repair cycle that included tuck-pointing the limestone and repairing loose stones, she said.

She said she would love to see a huge rainstorm in the next week or so, which would enable those responsible for the building's care to better judge whether they have adequately tackled all the places water can sneak in.

One of the unique features of the building is its internal gutter system, Zimmerman said.

Between those and the building's size and age, it is unlikely it will ever be 100 percent water dry, she said.

And then there's the matter of the pigeons.

Flocks of the birds and their waste cause damage to the building. Their poop can create dams in the gutters, causing water to back up and spill out, Zimmerman said.

The nesting falcons downtown and other birds of prey have helped eliminate some of the pigeon problem and the maintenance staff does a good job of staying ahead of the mess, she said

Aside from the small repair to the rotunda, Zimmerman said the bas-relief sculptures in the ornate courtrooms need to be dusted. And it is not the casual swiping with a duster or a rag that would characterize the task in a person's home.

While the sculptures actually look like bronze or leather, they are actually a delicate plaster. That means cleaning them will likely require the use of cotton swabs, in a fine-detailed procedure that too would require more scaffolding and time, she said.

"I think the judges are aware of this project," she said. "But it is something we want them to be on board with. This would take a large coordination."

There is talk now about surveying the building every four years, to make sure it is clean and in good shape, Zimmerman said.

And they also rely on the observations of those who are in and out of the building every day, as well as other county officials.

"Everybody kind of takes it on as their own personal treasure," Zimmerman said. "They share with me what they see and what we find. I'm thankful for that."