ST. GEORGE — The need to address the eroding sandstone foundation of one of the county’s oldest buildings is quickly leading to the conclusion of the free public tours at the old pioneer-era Washington County Courthouse.

Inside the Old Pioneer Courthouse that is counted among the oldest standing buildings in Washington County, St. George, Utah, Nov. 6, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Located at 97 E. St George Blvd., the old courthouse has played host to tours over the last four years while also serving as a museum of sorts. Items from Washington County’s pioneer period to the modern day can be found in various rooms dedicated to particular aspects of the region’s past.

Built in 1870 and in near-continuous use in one form or another since, the old county courthouse is the county’s oldest standing public building. To keep it standing, the city of St. George will engage in work around the exterior foundation to protect it from further erosion. Along the way, the courthouse’s mechanical and electrical systems will be updated.

“The pioneer courthouse is one of the most significant buildings in Washington County and certainly St. George,” Marc Mortensen, the city’s operations director, told St. George News while standing outside the courthouse. “It needs some care and it needs some love.”

Individuals who wish to experience the old pioneer courthouse tours before they close can do so the week of Nov. 13, on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. While the tours will end, the courthouse will remain open for special events set to be held between now and next spring, he said.

Many of the artifacts in the old courthouse are either property of the Washington County Historical Society or on loan from their respective owners. Items out on loan will be returned following the conclusion of the tours.

The Old Pioneer Courthouse will be subject to renovation work for an estimated two years to deal with erosion threatening its foundation, St. George, Utah, Nov. 6, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The courthouse itself was been used to house offices of the county government on its first floor in its early days while the top floor was used as both a courtroom and classroom as well as for various public and social gatherings. Three jail cells were built in the basement.

The building was used as a courthouse until 1960 and was subsequently bought from the county by the city of St. George, according to the Washington County Historical Society. It was empty until renovations in the mid-1980s when it became the home of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce until 2017.

The building then served as a home for the Dixie/Arizona Strip Interpretive Association for a brief while. It has since been occupied by the Washington County Historical Society and similar groups.

“The fact that the building is still standing and usable is a testament of the skill and care used in its construction even though, unlike later buildings which used lava stone for foundations, sandstone bricks were used for both the foundation and upper walls,” the historical society’s page on the building reads.

Renovating and improving the building is expected to take around two years, Mortensen said.

The work will begin on the exterior during which the courthouse will remain open for events scheduled through next spring. The building will then close to the public as work moves inside for mechanical and electrical systems.

The courthouse will reopen once the work is complete.

In the basement of the Old Pioneer Courthouse where erosion has begun to eat away at the sandstone walls, St. George, Utah, Nov. 6, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The intention here is to get this work done and get this building open to the public,” Mortensen said.

The city is working to secure funding for the project from state and federal grants. While it is too early to put an estimate on the overall cost of the work, Mortensen said it could reach up to $1 million.

The courthouse is one of five historic buildings owned by the city of St. George that city officials have plans to renovate and upgrade.

“We’re planning to create a use plan that would be conducive to the buildings for their protection, as well as a maintenance plan,” Mortensen said.

The other historic buildings the city owns include the St. George Opera House, the old Dixie Academy (which houses the St. George Childrens Museum), the Electric Theater and the Andrus Home.

The city’s efforts to preserve these buildings is similar to the work done by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in regard to the recent renovations made to the St. George Utah Temple and St. George Tabernacle before that, Mortensen added.

“We share the same love for these buildings – the history that it teaches and conveys to generations,” he said. “We’re doing all we can to make sure they legacy of these beautiful structures lives on.”

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