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Four Historic Courthouses Showcase 100-year-old Original Terrazzo Floors

When four courthouses in the Pacific Northwest, each over 100 years old, put together their building preservation plans, the original terrazzo floors, stairs, and walls were generally rated a significant contributor to the buildings’ historic significance.

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“Terrazzo was obviously a good choice; 100 years later, we are still using it,”

“Once terrazzo’s in, it stays forever.”

“…beautiful substance for buildings with high traffic.”

When four courthouses in the Pacific Northwest, each over 100 years old, put together their building preservation plans, the original terrazzo floors, stairs, and walls were generally rated a significant contributor to the buildings’ historic significance. Found to be in good-to-excellent condition, the floors have required only repairs of chips or minor cracks and an occasional resealing, along with routine maintenance, to keep them performing beautifully for over a century.

“Terrazzo was obviously a good choice; 100 years later, we are still using it,” reported Rebecca Nielsen, Historic Preservation Program Specialist and LEED Accredited Professional with US General Services Administration in Auburn, WA. “On the whole, the terrazzo is in really great shape and looks great,” she said. “We are proud of it and feature it.”

Spokane, Washington’s Federal Building and US Post Office celebrated its centennial in 2009; Tacoma Union Station was in 2011. In Oregon, the terrazzo in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse date from 1905; Yakima’s William O. Douglas Courthouse’s first case was tried in 1912.

“We fix up the cracks, and we maintain the terrazzo. There’s certainly no reason to replace it; it’s working just fine,” added Ms. Nielsen, who oversees 20 of the Pacific Northwest’s historic register federal buildings.

Terrazzo was chosen for these stately public buildings “because it worked so well,” she said. “Once terrazzo’s in, it stays forever. It’s easier to maintain and clean than wood, and it takes a lot to damage it. It takes a whole shift in the building. It stands up to just about anything. As an added benefit, it’s pretty; the designs and colors possible are limitless.”

At Portland’s courthouse, the only signs of age in the terrazzo today are slightly worn spots in front of the post office windows where lines formed for 40 years and a couple of settlement cracks, Ms. Nielsen reported. “Otherwise, it doesn’t look worn. You can’t tell it’s 100 years old.”

When the carpet was removed in Yakima’s courthouse in 2009, the original terrazzo underneath was declared “in relatively good condition considering the age.”

Minimal cracking and some deep scratches were found. The main problem was the countless small holes from the mechanically fastened carpet tack strips. Careful color matching was recommended for minor repairs and refinishing.

Today, use of terrazzo makes the same sense as it did in the day of these historic courthouses, and even more so with our current understanding of the environmental impact of construction choices. Construction is a significant contributor to carbon emissions, as Ms. Nielsen noted.

“We keep things up; we don’t get rid of things that have cultural value and other value,” she explained. “No energy is expended replacing it or getting rid of it. It’s an extremely durable, beautiful substance for buildings with high traffic.”

 

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