HEPPNER, Ore. (AP) — The dome is back home atop the historic Morrow County Courthouse in Heppner.
Spectators gathered this week as crews raised the newly renovated clock and bell tower into place, re-crowning the 112-year-old courthouse.
A 360-ton crane did the heavy lifting, while nearby residents watched in fascination from their porches, patios and vehicles. It took several hours to carefully secure the tower onto the roof, which was done in two pieces: first the wooden base and support columns, followed by the dome itself.
Built in 1902, the Morrow County Courthouse is one of the oldest continuously used courthouses in Oregon. But in recent years, it became apparent the brilliant white clock tower had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer stable.
Public Works Director Burke O'Brien said the tower needed significant repairs if it was to survive another century. Rather than putting up scaffolding, the county determined it could save more than $200,000 by hiring a crane service to remove the entire structure and perform restoration work on the ground.
Since the courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many pieces on the tower were rebuilt as exact replicas to maintain the structure's historical integrity. Finally, after 11 months, the project was finished and ready to return to the courthouse.
"It's just gratifying to see the vision come to fruition," O'Brien said. "This old courthouse is a symbol of pride here in Morrow County."
As a bonus, licensed master clockmaker Gary Kopperud agreed to restore the courthouse clock back to its original condition through his clockmaker's training program at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.
Prison inmates spent months refurbishing the clock — an original Seth Thomas Model 15 — to its previous authentic state. Kopperud tracked down missing parts as far away as New York to replace those lost when Morrow County converted the clock to run on electricity about 50 years ago.
"If we ran into something that wasn't perfect or exactly correct, then we (built) it," Kopperud said. "This is just amazing, because of its historical value."
The old weighted pendulum clock is now back on display in the courthouse lobby, awaiting final installation. That process will include running a shaft and three cables approximately 55 feet up into the tower to keep the hands on the clock face turning.
"It's rumored to be the highest lift in the country," Kopperud said.
In addition, the courthouse clock rings its bell every hour on the hour — a sound neighbor Greg Sweek said he's missed in its nearly year-long absence.
Sweek, 61, grew up in Heppner and worked 36 years as Morrow County assessor before retiring last September. He watched from in front of his house at 135 N. Court St. as the tower was set back on top of the building.
"My life has been around this courthouse," Sweek said. "To me, it's the defining part of Heppner."
Sweek's daughter, Talia Spencer, grew up in the same house and remembers hearing the bell ring when she would go out playing with friends in the creek. That was quite useful in the days before cellphones, to tell what time it was, she said.
Spencer, 31, now of Boise, had already come home for a visit along with her 6-year-old son, Ethan, when she heard the tower would be lifted back into place. They extended their stay another couple of days so they could watch it happen, she said.
"It looks naked up there without it," Spencer said. "I'm definitely excited to have it back ... they put a lot of hard work into it, so I'm sure it will show."
Morrow County Judge Terry Tallman said the investment shows the county is serious about keeping the courthouse in Heppner for many years to come.
"This is super for this old building, and this community," Tallman said. "It just makes you glad to be where we are."
Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.info