ST. MARTINVILLE — The St. Martin Parish Courthouse was built before neighboring Iberia Parish had even become a parish, and now the nearly 160-year-old structure is undergoing a much-needed renovation.

The $4.5 million project will add two new courtrooms, replace the building’s electrical work and pipes, and restore the courthouse’s original high ceilings, woodwork and marble floors, said principal architect Glenn E. Angelle.

“This building was definitely worth keeping,” Angelle said.

The renovation will allow the antebellum courthouse, one of only four remaining in the state, to move into the future, St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier said.

After the building was emptied in December 2009, trusties with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office gutted the building. Angelle said.

While construction work began in January 2011, the endeavor began in 2005 and did not really become a reality until after the Clerk of Court’s Office, Tax Assessor’s Office and Registrar of Voters Office all agreed to move into a newly built, 20,000-square-foot annex behind the courthouse, Cormier said.

This meant that the courthouse could become a “judicial center” that housed judges and the District Attorney’s Office.

The increased space also meant that the courthouse had room for two new, smaller courtrooms.

The three courtrooms will be located on the second floor where construction work exposed 17-foot ceilings that had previously been hidden under a 10-foot drop ceiling, which was likely put into place in the 1960s during the last major renovation, Angelle said.

The current renovations are keeping the historic shell in place while adding new touches that aim to reflect the building’s history, Angelle said.

On historic restorations such as this, Angelle said, “you want to tread as lightly as you can.”

Glass panels will be installed on each side of the main building that will connect to the two new additions.

Angelle said this will help differentiate the original building from the new additions while offering a view into portions of the courthouse.

A larger, two-story addition is being built on the back of the courthouse where it will not interfere with the view of the building from Main Street, he said.

The building’s electrical and pipe work, or its “nervous system,” is being updated to reflect the needs of today and tomorrow, Angelle said.

The building had far too few electrical outlets to handle the needs of modern-day computers and printers.

“It was a nightmare that wasn’t wired with that in mind,” Cormier said.

“If extension cords defined high technology,” Angelle added, “the courthouse would have been right up there with everyone else.”

The building will now be more secure:

• Certain areas of the building will only be accessible with a security card.

e_SBlt Judges and courthouse employees will have a private entrance.

e_SBlt There will be another entrance dedicated for transporting inmates from the jail, which is next-door.

The building was built to last, which has made the work that much easier and gratifying, Angelle said.

“It gives me goose bumps to think about how important this was,” Angelle said.

Angelle’s father served on the Police Jury that headed up the last major renovation in the 1960s.

“It’s an amazing honor to be a part of the story,” Angelle said.

The work is expected to be complete by spring 2012, Angelle said.