FAIRMONT, Minn. – Martin County residents might be wise to invest in a pair of sunglasses.
Because sometime this week, the shroud that's covered the county courthouse will be coming down, revealing a newly coppered dome.
And the sun glittering off the magnificent metal could be too much for the eyes to take.
The county courthouse, built in 1907 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime renovation, and the biggest and sexiest part is now virtually complete.
After nearly three years, work on the courthouse dome and clock tower is wrapping up, and the county celebrated last week with a presentation by Minneapolis horologist Rory DeMesy, who repaired and refurbished the tower's rare Seth Thomas clock, whose four-faced dial graces the copper dome nearly 100 feet above the ground.
After more than a century, the dome was battered, its underlying structure rusted and disintegrating. Leaks had damaged the historic murals on the ceiling below, and the clock was badly in need of repair.
The county committed to a renovation with new copper for the dome, underlaid by a sturdy frame with protective sheathing, and a refurbishment of the clock that left all its mechanical pieces in as-new condition. The total cost was about $2.8 million. Over the next year, workers will install a new roof on the main courthouse structure at an additional cost of about $1.4 million.
To put that in perspective, the original, all-in cost of the courthouse in 1907 was $125,000.
But it was the clock that drew several dozen residents to a brief ceremony where DeMesy explained all that went into its repair.
"My job is to put them back exactly the way the factory shipped them," he said. "So this clock is exactly as it was installed."
DeMesy is one of the nation's premier experts on tower clocks, with a résumé that includes renovation of the clock at Minneapolis City Hall.
The Martin County clock is one of about 8,000 tower clocks in the nation, but no new tower clocks have been built since 1965.
DeMesy was able to source many original parts for the restoration, but he had to fabricate some pieces from scratch. The clock dials are new, made of stainless steel, and the clock hands are old-growth redwood that was salvaged from a bank.
The county maintenance staff has been trained to operate the clock, which is self-winding, "and then it will be their baby," DeMesy said.
Still to come are the four copper eagles that grace the corners of the dome's base. They've being fabricated by Renaissance Roofing of Rockford, Ill., a specialist in historic renovation that also handled the dome's copper.
The detailing of the copper roof is extensive, said Bob Mickelson, a senior project manager at ISG, the Mankato-based architecture and engineering firm overseeing the renovation. In fact, he added, the craftsmen working on it said they'd never seen such ornate detail.
Residents will be able to enjoy their bright new dome for many years, but it will gradually turn green as the copper naturally oxidizes — think Statue of Liberty.
Within about 15 years, the green patina will completely take hold, said Scott Higgins, Martin County coordinator.
But the clock should be keeping good time for a century to come, DeMesy said.
"This is a wonderful public clock," he said. "It's been a really fun project for me. I've really enjoyed it, and I'm glad to see that Martin County is going to have one of the finest [clocks] in the country."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402