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Fire damages historic Madison landmark

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By Dave Taylor

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

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The opening sentence of Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Tale of Two Cities,” could very well have described one day, Wednesday, May 20, 2009, in the life of one city, Madison, Ind., although penned in the nineteenth century.

The citizens of Madison began the day with renovations nearly complete on one of the most prized of the city’s numerous historic structures, the 154-year-old Jefferson County Courthouse. Finishing touches were being completed on new paint and exterior improvements in anticipation of the city’s upcoming Bicentennial celebration next month. At the end of the day, however, the structure had been devastated by fire.

Julie Berry, president of the Jefferson County Commissioners, made reference to the Dickens classic Thursday morning. “Yesterday, the courthouse looked the best that it has looked in my lifetime,” she said. “It was painted and shining and restored. And then it was the worst of times later last night.”

An alarm went out to firefighters shortly after 6 p.m., Wednesday, when smoke began billowing from the cupola atop the structure. By the morning light of the following day, the once-majestic, three-story structure stood in smoldering ruins. Residents stood in small groups with stunned expressions on their faces.

Officers from Madison’s six volunteer fire companies were in a monthly meeting at Madison City Hall, two blocks west of the courthouse, when the alarm was dispatched.

“They said the courthouse was on fire,” recalled Madison Fire Chief Steve Horton, “and I thought, ‘Yeah, right!’ As we pulled out onto Main Street we could see heavy smoke. There were strong working flames. We tried an interior attack. It wasn’t safe so we pulled out. We then worked to contain the fire.”

Volunteers from Milton Fire and Rescue in Trimble County responded almost immediately, said Fire Chief Ronnie Barnes. When one of the Madison engines broke down, “we were brought in to help fight the fire.”

“It’s been a long night,” Berry said during a press conference at city hall Thursday morning. “The biggest thank you today has to go to the volunteer firemen. They worked valiantly to save our building. Help came in from all over southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. We want to thank our neighboring northern Kentucky” volunteers who came to help, Berry said. “All this was greatly appreciated.”

Ladder trucks and trucks equipped with pump booms stretched into the sky to bear water on the cupola and roof. The fire was brought under control within about four hours after firefighters were dispatched to the scene. Several units remained overnight and into the following days to control hot spots, Horton said.

The courthouse was to have been the centerpiece of many of the city’s bicentennial activities next month.

“We had just actually completed some exterior renovation and painting and interior cleaning,” Jefferson County Attorney  Wil Goering said. “It was about $160,000 for the exterior tuck-pointing, painting, restoration of the cupola and dome. There were also moneys expended on cleaning and other fees, so probably $175,000 was spent altogether.”

The courthouse was built in 1854-55 at a cost of $36,000, according to Historic Madison, Inc., a preservationist group.

“We will continue as normally as we can in the City of Madison and Jefferson County and we’ll make it through this,” said Madison Mayor Tim Armstrong.