The Marshall County Courthouse was rededicated after extensive tornado repairs


More than four years after an EF-3 tornado devastated buildings throughout downtown Marshalltown, including the historic courthouse, Marshall County on Saturday re-dedicated the restored building, opening its doors to the public for the first time since the storm open.

Over 100 visitors crowded into the rotunda on the second floor for the event. Officials from the Grand Lodge of Iowa AF & AM, a Masonic organization, presided over the ceremony, followed by speeches by Marshall County architects and officials involved in the renovation.

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“This is not a history of a building’s resilience. It’s the story of the community’s commitment to one another, to your past and to your future,” said Scott Allen, the architect for the renovation, during the ceremony.

When the tornado hit Marshalltown on July 19, 2018, its winds exceeding 100 miles per hour damaged the dome atop the courthouse, a building on the National Register of Historic Places, and toppled the spire above it. The building’s collapsed dome and smokestacks ruptured three sprinkler lines, causing up to 16,000 gallons of water to flood the east half of the courthouse.

The rest of the exterior facade was also badly damaged. The grand, old French Victorian building sits in the heart of town, rivaling only the former Tallcorn Hotel as downtown’s most imposing building, and seeing it battered by the storm made the debris from the tornado all the more for Marshalltown residents heartbreaking.

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Iowa State Assemblyman Sue Cahill, D-Marshalltown, said that while working as a teacher at the city’s Woodbury Elementary School, she saw how people view the courthouse.

“I was talking about coming downtown and pointing to the courthouse. And the kids said, ‘Oh, you mean the castle?’ And in a way it’s like a castle,” Cahill said. “The courthouse is a symbol of our community and I’m so proud to be a part of it. I’m honored to witness the ceremony, the care, and the dedication who bring the courthouse back to us.”

Since the tornado, only a few Marshall County employees have been allowed into the building during repairs. The renovation process began by blowing off hot air to dry water damaged areas. A new dome was built on top of the courthouse in early 2020. A scaffolding system was then built around the courthouse to allow workers to add pink windows and other finishing touches.

Greg Lettington, vice president of field service at Breiholz ​​Construction Co., said portions of the fourth floor and all of the fifth floor have yet to be restored. He estimates the work will be completed in February or March.

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Exterior renovations, like planting shrubs and decorative additions to the spire, could take longer, but Lettington said he expects them to be finished by the end of spring.

The cost is about $42 million, with about $33 million provided by the building’s insurance company and $9 million by Marshall County, said Nann Benson, the county’s auditor and clerk. The original estimate for post-tornado repairs was $15.5 million.

“It was underrated,” Benson said. “They had no idea what they were seeing. They didn’t understand historical architecture.”

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November 19th was not chosen by chance as the date for the re-inauguration. The courthouse was first dedicated on November 19, 1886, and was rededicated the same day in 1978 after a renovation and modernization. It also fell on the same day as the 2022 edition of the annual Christmas walk through downtown Marshalltown, with a parade, carnival, holiday decorations and entertainment adding to the celebrations.

“It will be very nice to be able to do this on this date which coincides with another celebration. A lot of people will already be downtown,” Lucas Baedke, the precinct’s buildings and grounds director, told precinct leaders as they planned the event.

Nina Baker is a news reporter at the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Nina_M_Baker.