SALEM — When the Salem Courthouse was built in 1869, the overall construction budget was $30,000, of which the Salem community had to come up with $10,000.
Designed by Troy architect Marcus Cummings, the courthouse was completely built in only six months.
“And this is before cars,” said Janice Quartararo, the executive director of the Historic Salem Courthouse Preservation Association.
When the building was dedicated, the community held a torch-lit parade through the town of Salem.
The Historic Salem Courthouse Preservation Association hopes to recreate that torch-lit parade this December as the courthouse-turned-nonprofit community center celebrates its 150th anniversary in Salem.
The courthouse was abandoned in 1993 when the county moved all judicial activities to the town of Fort Edward. The attached jailhouse continued in service under the direction of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department until 2003.
Just before that, in 2001, the preservation association started a mission to celebrate the past by preserving and restoring the building. The group is hoping to fully restore the building in the next 10 years, right down to the no-longer-existent bell tower.
Donna Farringer, the former executive director, remembers walking into the building back in 2003 and being able to scrape nicotine off the walls.
“You’d walk in the door, all you would smell would be nicotine and urine,” said Farringer.
When the county left, there was barbed wire fencing on the property, Quartararo said. The historic wood front doors were in storage.
“It was really in disrepair,” Quartararo said. “I think they saw the writing on the wall that they were moving, so there just wasn’t money that was invested into the upkeep.”
Over the past 17 years the association has raised nearly $1 million through grants, events and donations to rehabilitate the historic structure that boasts one of the best preserved 19th-century courtrooms in the country.
“We have a lot of amazing individuals here in Salem and the immediate area that said, ‘there’s a lot of historic significance to this building, it needs to be preserved and needs to be turned into something that can serve the needs of the community,' " Farringer said.
So far, the association has refinished and re-hung the front doors, added temporary handicapped bathrooms, repaired the Great Hall ceiling and walls, added fire stairs, a front porch, handicapped ramp and side deck, added an activity room and a chair elevator, replaced the chimney, fixed roof cornices and box gutters and restored five of the eight courtroom windows.
Historical architect Jack G. Waite, who owns a home nearby, has been working on the historic restoration of the building, which is on the National Historic Register.
They still need to fix the floors, add new lighting, bathrooms, painting, a storage closet and do roof maintenance. The heating also needs to be zoned, which will allow for more programming and events during the winter months.
The association is currently awaiting a grant from Carrie Woerner for $125,000, which will help pay for the additional restoration plans and a much-needed roof repair.
The jail that exists now is from 1923 and was actually the third jail that was on the courthouse site.
When the courthouse was built in 1869, they rolled the jail on logs from its location on Main Street to the current location off East Broadway.
“It was a wooden jail, so you can imagine the break-ins that happened, or break-outs, I should say,” Quartararo said.
In 1892, they decided to construct a two-story brick jail, Farringer said.
“The prisoners kept chipping through the mortar and escaping,” she said, “so back to the drawing board.”
In the early 20th century, around 1905, they brought in William Beardsley, who designed Attica, to design the state-of-the-art facility, which is still there today.
While the jail is used for storage now, the courthouse building is now a community center. Artists show their work in the 80-foot great hall, and chamber music is played upstairs in the courtroom, where world-renowned musicians perform concerts.
The upstairs courtroom needs a lot of work. Even though it was designed to hold court, it was also designed for entertainment, as the floor slopes down toward the judge’s bench.
“When they designed this in 1869,” Quartararo said, “they designed it thinking we’re going to have performances here.”
The plaster in the courtroom is made out of horse hair, which makes the acoustics phenomenal, Farringer said.
Farringer has been told the acoustics are equal to those of Carnegie Hall.
“People come here to meet to gather to hear performances,” Quartararo said, “and it’s just interesting it was really designed for that manner.”
The pews were made of chestnut taken from the estate of John Williams, who was in the Revolutionary War. The chestnut trees were from his property, where the adjacent school currently sits.
The ceiling plaster, damaged by wet insulation from a leaky roof, needs to be repaired.
“We’re going to restore this room,” Farringer said. “We’re going to make it what it was.”
The courthouse also maintains a community garden as well as The Shoppe Off Broadway, a thrift store adjacent to the courthouse that donates proceeds to fund youth activities.
The association is most proud of the Lunch Learn & Play program, a six-week summer program for about 150 kids.
“Children are exposed to a phenomenal array of educational and fun activities, for free, no charge,” Farringer said.
Every activity and function at the Historic Salem Courthouse this year will focus on the 150th anniversary. The biggest fundraiser of the year is the Al Fresco dinner, where farm-to-table cuisine is served on the green to about 400 people.
“It’s just a gathering of all of the area people and beyond,” Farringer said.
Salem veterinarian Eugene Ceglowski said he was thrilled that the courthouse was still standing and wasn’t torn down when the county moved out.
He said he is amazed that the courthouse could be built by hand for only $30,000 and in only six months, from June to December of 1869.
The association is planning a big party and another torch-lit parade in December to commemorate the event.
“History is worth learning about,” Ceglowski said.