At about 10 p.m. on May 15, 1910, Courthouse janitor Roy Taylor noticed something was wrong with the building. Outside, passersby saw smoke and flames. Attorney Fred Irwin saw the flames from his backyard. A fire had started in the basement of a rear wooden building of the Courthouse used as a storage and wood room.
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The conflagration claimed the Courthouse and a not insignificant portion of downtown, the Mountain Democrat reported at the time. Apart from El Dorado County Superior Court Judge N.D. Arnot, the Courthouse housed 12 jail cells, the county Assessor’s Office, District Attorney’s Office and County Clerk’s Office; documents held by the county saw heavy losses.
A new Courthouse was built on the same location, where it still stands today. Sacramento company Cuff and Diggs built the Courthouse for $131,000, completing it in 1913. Two adjoining lots were added to the building, built of reinforced concrete and faced with matte glaze terra cotta tiles from Lincoln-based Gladding, McBean & Co. The terra cotta tiles were a replacement for white sandstone which was discovered to be splitting and cracking.
Two solid bronze doors greeted those entering the courthouse, with corridors furnished with marble, imitation marble known as scagliola and imitation Caen stone, a mixture of white cement and colored ground stone that is applied like plaster, records at the El Dorado County Historical Museum indicate.
Artistic tile and oak was used for flooring and the main staircase was made of iron and marble. The building was finished in oak darkened by ammonia fumes, or “light fumed oak.”
Civil War canons at the front entrance were donated the Grand Army of the Republic by the U.S. War Department, records indicate. The Placerville post of the GAR was able to obtain the canons for the new building.
A 12-cell jail was again installed and the county Treasurer moved in to the first floor of the building. A burglar-proof and fireproof vault with a time lock and a door weighing more than 9,200 pounds was installed over the course of three days.
On Dec. 23, 1912, the public was given a tour of the soon-to-open building and the Board of Supervisors accepted the building as the new Courthouse.
By 1962, the Courthouse was once again in danger. Engineering consultants reported the concrete floors of the first and second floors were dangerously sagging. The building was abandoned, with the Veterans Hall at the fairgrounds used as a courthouse.
On Dec. 7, 1967, amid extensive debate of the building, District 4 Supervisor Ray Lawyer suggested that the Courthouse should be remodeled and used once again. Although a survey earlier in the year showed that about 40 percent of county residents thought the building should be used as an Old West museum, Supervisor Wes Worrell seconded the motion, a motion he had proposed himself the previous July.
The newly remodeled Courthouse was dedicated on March 5, 1971, having taken a year and $500,000 to remodel. It contained the Superior Courts, County Clerk’s Office and Placerville Justice Court.
A minor hiccup was encountered in 1998, when the second floor had to be closed so asbestos that had wrapped pipes could be removed. During the week after it was reopened, 95 percent of court employees became sick. It was believed that spores and mold were the cause, but after a week, the symptoms died off as quickly as they had appeared.
Judge James R. Wagoner went over much of this history in a commemoration on Wednesday, given to an audience of about 40 people standing outside the Courthouse. The Courthouse has seen the invention of the car and the rocket, from President Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, multiple wars, multiple generations and landmark cases from Miranda to Rowe v. Wade, Wagoner concluded.
Mayor Wendy Mattson then took to the podium, calling the building a “stately white diamond” that had been the “seat of justice since the Gold Rush.” She noted that as the county works towards a new courthouse, the community should pay attention to this one. She pledged to “honor and preserve (the courthouse’s) place as a beacon of honor and justice in our town.”
The county had gone from 10 administrators to over 1,600 employed by the county in the time the Courthouse has been up, noted District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp. He said he will work with both the community and the city to keep the Courthouse “in some higher capacity” and said that “the success of downtown Placerville lives or dies with this Courthouse.”
Freda Pechner, attorney of 30 years, called the building “the most beautiful courthouse in California” and suggested that attorneys try to help with judges, acting as judges pro tem and doing small jobs like carrying case files from one office to another — potentially saving up to $1 million a year if just 50 attorneys donated a total of 400 hours.
Former judge Eddie T. Keller said that, while the Courthouse had an asbestos problem and a fault line going right under it, it still stood. Though there had been “four or five” plans since he was a judge starting in July 1989 to create a new courthouse, each had failed. With a new courthouse project in the works, he said, “In my lifetime, I’d really like to see it happen.”
Representatives from Assembly members Frank Bigelow and Beth Gaines and state Sen. Ted Gaines presented a plaque to Wagoner commemorating the Courthouse’s aniversary, and a representative from Congressman Tom McClintock presented a certificate.