Wicomico Courthouse tower damaged in lightning strike

A lightning strike that damaged the clock tower atop the Wicomico County Circuit Courthouse early Tuesday means restoration work already planned for the historic structure will be expedited.

Slate from the tower littered the Courthouse grounds Tuesday morning. (Todd Dudek Photo)

Slate from the tower littered the Courthouse grounds Tuesday morning. (Todd Dudek Photo)

“It will now become a top priority,” said Public Works Director Weston Young.

Meantime, the hole caused by lightning will be patched and a tarp placed over the area until repairs begin.

Pieces of the slate roof fell to the ground during the storm. The clock in the tower continues to tick, but the time is wrong, Young said.

“We’ve been analyzing that whole historical courthouse. The old slate roof has been leaking in parts. We’ve performed studies to assess the building. We want to try to replace the roof and, of course, meet the historical requirements and make sure it’s done well,” Young said.

Young said the county recently received the final study for restoration and will put out bids. He said he doesn’t yet know the cost or timeline for repairs.

The County Council proposed $750,000 phased over Fiscal Years 2016-18 for restoration and repairs. They will include replacing the roof and gutters, reinforcing the upper floor structure and bell tower, repairing masonry and painting.

“With the bell tower specifically, we did have structural engineers take a look at it. The plan was to repair it. It has some age. The paint is old,” Young said.

County officials have discussed the best method for working on the tower, either with it in place, or after removing it and putting it on the ground, for easier access.

“It has a slight lean. I was up there in the tower a few weeks ago and you can feel it swaying in the wind. Our goal before the lightning strike is still the same, to repair and restore the bell tower,” he said.

County Executive Bob Culver said a fire alarm went off early Tuesday but was a trouble alarm and didn’t pertain to the lightning strike. As the work day began, employees found slate laying on the ground in front of the Government Office Building, then noticed the hole in the bell tower, Culver said.

Agreeing with Young, he said the storm “has affected the schedule of the Courthouse renovations.”

“There were plans for the renovation to start next spring but the bell tower will have to be removed as soon as possible to protect the safety of the people around the Government Office Building and the public. We also have to be sure it is weather tight to protect the integrity of the Courthouse,” Culver said.

Mark Bowen, clerk of the Circuit Court, said his office was having problems with power and with equipment on Tuesday. Young said malfunctions were widespread and likely due to high temperatures the past few days, as well as the lightning.

Built in 1878, the Courthouse is recognized as an historical building by  Maryland the Downtown Historical District. In 1886, it survived a devastating fire.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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