A Glimpse into History

As construction of the Livingston Law & Justice Center in Pontiac, Illinois, was nearing completion in 2010, our design team met with several judges and county board members in the historic courthouse that sits next to the new justice center site. The courthouse had been serving the county since 1875, but was out of date and had long been overcrowded. All of the court functions were set to move next door to the new building soon, and the county envisioned continuing to use the old courthouse—an anchor for Pontiac's downtown—for administrative offices and county board meetings.

Designed in the Second Empire style and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the old courthouse was in need of restoration. A previous remodeling had carved the building up—the grand full-floor courtroom upstairs had been divided into two smaller courtrooms with jury rooms, holding cells, and other support spaces. The building's windows, wood trim, doors, wainscot, and other finishes required repair, and the HVAC system needed replacement.


A Defining Moment

We sat in one of the upstairs courtrooms and discussed plans for the modernization. At one point, Judge Robert M. Travers mentioned that the courtroom's original ceiling was still intact under the suspended acoustical ceilings that had been in place since the last interior remodeling. The judge knew where we could find a ladder and a flashlight, so we took a look for ourselves.

We climbed the ten-foot ladder, opened one of the ceiling panels, and peered into the space. We could see that above the drywall ceiling, the room's beautiful arched windows reached to their full height within a soaring space—highlighted by the original barrel-vaulted wooden beams and a punched tin ceiling. Fully restored, the space could be breathtaking.

Old Photos, New Scans

We soon realized that, to begin, we would need technology far more sophisticated than a ladder and a flashlight. We had only three old historical society photos of the courthouse to work with. There were no as-built drawings, and visual observation was very limited due to the 27-foot height of the space and the intervening suspended ceiling. We turned to Valdes Engineering Co. to assist us by providing black-and-white laser scans of the building. This helped us determine the extent of repairs needed, define the scope, and create accurate cost estimates.


We found that a skylight was missing, for example, and located several areas where wood trim was missing or damaged. The scans aided in determining what was behind the building walls as well, which proved critical to the installation of the new HVAC system. We were also able to use the scans to create a BIM model and carefully coordinate the restoration design.


That first glimpse into the full-height ceiling space was overwhelming, as we began to recognize the true beauty and promise of this building. Now, fully restored, the building has returned to that grandeur, and is serving the county well for administration, meetings, and special events. Representatives of the Smithsonian Institution, who recently visited the courthouse in conjunction with the museum's traveling Journey Stories exhibition, commented on how beautiful the building is—an ideal setting for an exhibition focusing on American history. We couldn't agree more.