The Courthouse Light Returns

It’s been two years since the quest began to bring this original Winnebago County Courthouse light fixture back home. My former supervisor and friend Isaiah and I have a mutual appreciation for architecture and history. Our courthouse is a beautiful example of the Depression Moderne style from the 1930s. I was fortunate in that he put me in charge to clean some of the bronze decor in the building. I have spent days on ladders and scaffolding taking the cornices down to clean and then put them back up. I’ve also cleaned the bronze door hardware, elevator doors, and sign holders. The building is filled with these intricate details. When we learned about a light fixture that had been removed from the building years ago our goal was to bring it home.

I don’t know what it is about this building, but I’ve admired everything about it since the day I started working for Winnebago County as a maintenance technician. The more I dug into her history, the greater appreciation I had for her every detail. Everything about this building is a work of art made by skilled artisans of various trades of their time. This building was built well and built to last. But some features inside were victim to modernization. I’ve discovered a few rewiring projects that the County Board approved in the 1970s. That is when many of the light fixtures, including this one, were likely removed and replaced with the drab fluorescent boxes. Somehow a handful of these old fixtures ended up being saved and are still out there.

I am still trying to figure out the exact circumstances of how these lights were saved. Terry Laib, the owner of Laib Restoration, informed me that County Board Supervisor James P. Coughlin (who eventually became County Executive) donated the old light fixtures to the Winneconne Historical Society when they were removed. He said that the lights sat in storage with that organization for many years until the society wanted to part with them and contacted him. Terry is in the business of historic preservation, so he added these lights to his collection. He put this chandelier up in the old Wagner Opera House that he had owned and restored in downtown Oshkosh. Isaiah found out about this light and asked me to do some more research. He had heard that this light came out of the courthouse, but he wasn’t sure where. I put my detective skills to work and started looking for everything I could about the courthouse. I eventually struck gold when I found the courthouse dedication booklet from 1938. I found the photo of this light as I flipped through the pages of that booklet. It originally hung over the main staircase between the first and second floors–pictured above.

I am on the board of the Winnebago County Historical & Archaeological Society and thought it would be a great way for our organization to be involved in local preservation. I shared the idea with our board of directors, and they were excited about the idea of helping put this light back in the courthouse. So I decided to talk to the building’s new owners, Kris and Sarrah Larson, and share the significance of the light and what we were trying to do. The Larsons also run Wagner Market which is a small grocery store and meat market in a portion of their building. Molly and I stop in the from time to time to get jerky, craft beer, and locally made cheese. I stopped in and bought some of the chocolate covered almonds that Molly loves, and I asked Sarrah if she knew that the light fixture in their lobby came out of the Winnebago County Courthouse. She was surprised, so I showed her the picture of the lobby from 1938. I asked her if she would be willing to work with us and arrange to get the light back to the courthouse. She said she would be happy to work that out. Her one request was that we find her a replacement light to put in her lobby.

I wanted to make sure that the Larsons had an elegant light to replace the one that would be coming out. I made my way up the street to Crescent Moon Antiques and Salvage. My friends J. and Julie Karner own and operate this awesome architectural salvage store. Sometimes older buildings are lost to history, but the Karners are the saviors of these buildings’ fine details and structural materials before they end up in the landfill. The materials get reused by people like me looking to preserve the historic appearance of their home or who want to repurpose them in homes or businesses. If anyone was going to have a light that would be a comparable replacement, it was going to be in their store. Julie had a beautiful pendant light that they salvaged out of a church. so we invited Sarrah to come and took a look at it. She thought the light was beautiful and agreed to make the swap.

Day one in the shop before disassembly.
All Apart
I called this part the “Pineapple”
Almost Done
Done and ready for install

The courthouse light came down in August 2016 and was sent to the Winnebago County Facilities and Property Management shop. I was assigned to restore the light fixture. I took pictures of everything on the light before and while I disassembled it. I carefully stripped, cleaned, and applied a new coat of lacquer to the pieces and put it all back together. The electrician in our department rewired the sockets–all twelve of them. I spent many, many, many hours working on that light fixture. It sat in storage at our facility for several months before the big day arrived for it to be reinstalled.

The light was scheduled to go up during the Courthouse Renovation project. That got underway in 2017, so I had to be patient for the day to come. Finally, on May 24, 2018, I was given the go-ahead to bring the light out of storage and transport it to the courthouse to go up. This was the moment I had been waiting for since the day the county got the light back. Finally, all of the hard work that went into getting the light back and restoring it was about to pay off. My supervisors and I carefully lowered the light down where it had been hanging for the last year waiting to make the trip back where it belonged. We transported it to the courthouse and up to the second floor. There I helped the electrical contractors hoist it up onto the scaffolding they set up over the staircase. They wired it in and secured it into place. At that point, one of the electricians jokingly exclaimed, “let’s make sure it lights up before we take this scaffolding down!” I had no doubts, we rewired that light months ago. I had gone up in storage on several occasions to plug it in and just look at it. I walked over and flipped the switch on the wall. I don’t know what lit up brighter, the light or my face. I had to take a picture and send it to Isaiah. He had taken a new job with Outagamie County in 2017, so I had to make sure I kept him in the loop of when this work of art was installed. Finally, the light that had been placed there eighty-years earlier had finally come home.

The view from the first floor.
Stair View
It’s Home!

This was such a fun experience for me. This project is what sparked my interest in the history of the building that I work in on daily basis. I feel very proud to have overseen the restoration of this light from start to finish and played a role with so many other people in returning this light. I hope we are able to find and bring the other lights back to the courthouse in the future–more on that in a future post! Now this beautiful light can illuminate our magnificent courthouse for many more years to come.

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