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Courthouse condundrum: Overused facility not a good place for weddings, board hears

The parties may be over at the Washington County Courthouse in Stillwater.

Since it was replaced as the seat of county government by the new Government Center, the courthouse and its grounds have become a popular venue for weddings and other private events.

The number of wedding ceremonies and receptions at the courthouse increased from 55 in 2011 to 113 in 2015.

But this popularity has taken a toll on the 19th-century Greek Revival structure. The Washington County Board of Commissioners recently banned new wedding bookings at the courthouse through 2017, in part because of damage to the ballroom floor, walls, stairs and furniture.

They will honor weddings and other events that were booked before the ban. The normal schedule of community events, which include Christmas at the Courthouse, Victorian tea, tours and guided fitness hikes, will remain.

"My No. 1 position is that we make sure we preserve the courthouse," said County Commissioner Gary Kriesel, whose district includes Stillwater. "It's iconic to Washington County. ... We've got to try to explore ways that can enhance its usage but not cause any harm."

It wasn't an easy decision, Kriesel said. He said he received a phone call from at least one disappointed bride-to-be who had her heart set on having her wedding at the courthouse.

Kriesel said he favors limiting the courthouse to wedding ceremonies only. Leave the party planning to local wedding vendors and venues, he said.

That option was presented at a workshop last month by County Engineer Wayne Sandberg.

"They want to find a balance," Sandberg said. "They want to keep the building open to the public. The want to keep it a vibrant part of the community, but they also want to respect it. It's old."

The courthouse kitchen is too small to cater large-scale receptions, Sandberg said. A Washington County sheriff's deputy must be present at all events where alcohol is served.

Until recently, the county had contracted with St. Croix Boat and Packet to run the events at the courthouse.

"When we split, they gave us a debriefing — 'Here are some things you should be thinking about.' It's their thought that the building is being overused," Sandberg said.

The board wants to have a policy in place before the new bookings moratorium expires at the beginning of 2018.

"I'm sure we will find the sweet spot on the best uses for the facility," Sandberg said.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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