Courthouse tower undergoing restoration

Standing on scaffolding high in the sky, Wicomico Assistant Administration Director Weston Young, left, and Tom Hayes, Public Works facilities superintendent, examine the condition of the clock faces on the tower of the Wicomico County Courthouse.

There is a time capsule in Salisbury unlike any other in Wicomico County.

Since 1878, men have been visiting a small room about 9 feet by 9 feet square, four stories above ground.

Over the decades, visitors here have scrawled their names and dates on the wooden walls and framework.

This lofty chamber, almost to the top of the Wicomico County Courthouse clock tower, had been the haunt of birds, spiders and cockroaches for decades.

While hundreds of thousands of people have seen the exterior of the room, with its distinctive four glass clock faces on each point of the compass, few have ever been inside to see a room basically unaltered since it was constructed in 1878.

For more than 140 years, men have been coming to this room to work on the clock motor or gears, or make repairs, entering by a hatch opening so small that most people have to turn sideways because their shoulders won’t clear the narrow opening in the rectangle.

All that is left of the electric-powered clock, which had been here for decades, are the screw holes in the rough pine floor. As for the bell that once pealed the hours, it was located in the small room beneath the clockworks. Now it’s gone.

It appears the initial $25,000 to build the courthouse did not include enough money for a bell, but for four large glass clock faces with wooden hands to mark the time. It was because of a legendary fire that the courthouse got a bell.

The courthouse was the only public building left standing in the heart of the city after the Great Salisbury Fire of 1886. That fire that reduced 22 acres of residences and businesses in the heart of the city to ashes and did an estimated $1 million in damages.

Because the courthouse sat alone on the hill, it was not destroyed.

When St. Peter’s Episcopal Church burned to the ground, with 200 other structures, only its bell survived, but was damaged. It was recast and offered to the Wicomico County Court House until St. Peter’s was rebuilt with a bell tower.

The bell was on loan until 1996 when Father David Michaud of St. Peter’s asked that the bell be returned. It was no longer striking the hour in the courthouse clock tower.

Some $15,000 later, to cover costs of extracting the bell, moving it and installing it in the church bell tower, the bell is now tolling out the hour.

Soon there will be a new Swiss-made clock in the courthouse tower, but no bell. The towers and roof of the Salisbury landmark are getting a new look in preparation for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the county.

Wicomico County was created in 1867 from land that made up part of Somerset and Worcester counties. Salisbury wanted the new government seat to be marked with an imposing brick courthouse on one of the city’s highest hills.

On this painted area on the interior wall of the clock tower, visiting workmen have been scrawling their names since 1945.

In early 1867, the courthouse site just east of Division Street was located in Worcester County. When finished in 1878, the courthouse was solidly in Wicomico.

The site also overlooked Humphreys Pond, which was once part of a milling operation on East Main Street. When the dam broke in 1909, the pond was reclaimed and lots were sold for business sites.

With $25,000 set aside for construction of the courthouse in the Victorian Gothic, Second Empire and Romanesque architectural styles of the day, the 1878 building was also distinctive for its stone and brick decorative pattern work.

Topping off the city and county’s pride and joy was the addition of a clock tower, a feature few other structures on the Lower Shore had at the time. Four almost 4-foot-wide circular glass clock faces marked the main points of the compass.

For 131 years the courthouse has been a landmark and the icon of the county. It became home to county government offices on the first floor and the Wicomico County Circuit Court on the second.

Yet water posed as much a threat to the building as fire once did.

Years of water leaks stemming from the flat roof and cracks in the frameworks of the two wooden towers were also damaging interior walls.

“The repairs and restoration of the courthouse is part of a larger effort by the county executive to invest in all our county-owned buildings,” said Weston Young, assistant director of administration for Wicomico County.

“We have 40 government buildings through the county; some are county occupied, some are state occupied like the health department and ag extension office. In the case of the historic Circuit Court Building, the water damage and leaks were shorting out air conditioning units and contributing to a host of other problems caused by a faulty roof,” he said. “We are committed to taking care of what we have. What better for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Wicomico County than to use this historic courthouse as a centerpiece of our work.”

Repairs, and saving architectural history, the county discovered, doesn’t come cheap.

“The winning bid to do the work was $782,890. We had competitive bids, this considerable less than other four,” said Tom Hayes, facilities superintendent in the general services division of public works for the county.

“Everything done to this building over the years really has been a temporary fix. There doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of money budgeted for repairs until now. We set aside $250,000 a year for the past three years for this and had our fingers crossed during the bidding phase that we had enough money reserved to go for it,” he said.

In addition to repairs, a new clock will be installed in the tower, and debris cleaned out of the attic.

“There’s stuff in the attic that may be leftover wood and building materials from the construction of the courthouse in 1878,” Hayes said.

“Just before restoration work, trees in the courthouse yard were removed or trimmed,” he said, “because squirrels were using limbs as a direct route to enter the tower and occupy the attic.”

Then there is the problem, too, of cockroaches.

“They are unworldly,” said a laughing Young. “Gigantic. They are still up there.”

There’s a lot of work to do before the job is finished. Like other construction jobs, there are always challenges to the budget for repair work.

“I’m trying to be a watchdog on the budget here,” Hayes said. “We’ve been proposed some change orders, but we’ve tried to be good conservatives with the public’s money and holding our wallets tight.”

Work is expected to be completed by late July.

The original clock mechanism has been removed.

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