Seeking Resolution for Georgia’s Historic Courthouses
“But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as a rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judicate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and hopes …”
— William Faulkner
("The Courthouse [A Name for the City]," in Requiem for a Nun)
There are few symbols more recognizable than a courthouse in a downtown square. Whether it is the strong presence of the columns on a Greek Revival or the elaborate clock towers of a High Victorian or Second Empire, these structures have long been the focal point of their downtowns. As the historic location of the superior court and seat of government for the county, the courthouse is an important vein of the community, pulsing with life from the constant flow of workers and visitors through its doors.
Colquitt County Courthouse in downtown Moultrie.
(Photo by Andrea Foster.)
Despite their imposing presence, many courthouses across the state are in frail condition. According to a 2002 study released by the Office of Jack Pyburn, Architect, there are 157 courthouses built prior to 1960 and approximately 158 city halls in Georgia, and more than half of these buildings are in poor or fair condition. To improve the situation of Georgia’s historic courthouses, the Atlanta-based architecture firm estimates it will cost between $1 million and $2.5 million per rehabilitation, with an average cost of $2.1 million, for a statewide total of $466 million.
Faced with these estimates, some counties are at a crossroads about what to do with their historic courthouses. Like many structures built decades ago, older, unrehabilitated courthouses do not always meet the needs of their modern occupants. Some communities have grown and need more office space than their building can provide. Others are struggling with building layouts that do not allow for separate courtroom entrances for jurors, judges and the “accused” on trial. Under these circumstances, some communities are opting to leave behind their historic courthouses, often located in the center of the downtown, to build brand-new complexes combining county and city government offices, sometimes several miles outside downtown.
While moving to a new building may solve the problem of space or layout, it can create big problems for the downtown. Courthouses, like post offices, city halls and department stores, often serve as anchors for downtowns. The steady flow of workers, visitors and related businesses are vital for neighboring shops and restaurants. “Moving the courthouse functions can kill a downtown, especially in smaller towns,” says Mary Anne Thomas, coordinator of the Department of Community Affairs’ Main Street program. “The foot traffic of the courthouse keeps that activity, that flow going.”
Hall County Courthouse in Gainesville
Downtowns have also seen associated businesses such as attorneys’ offices, professional service businesses, restaurant and retail establishments move with the courthouse staff.
“The experience in community after community shows that downtowns decline when courthouses and municipal functions are moved out of the area,” says Glen Bennett, senior director of preservation services for The Georgia Trust. “Even if the historic courthouse or city hall is adaptively used, the loss of court- or municipal-related activity results in a marked decrease in foot traffic and therefore economic activity in the downtown.”
Jefferson, the county seat of Jackson County, is currently planning to move its courthouse functions out of the downtown and build a new complex on land closer to Interstate 85. According to Alan Dickerson, coordinator for the Department of Community Affairs’ Better Hometown program, there is an effort by local Better Hometown representatives and concerned citizens to keep the courthouse downtown, where there is property available for additional expansion.
Upson County Courthouse in Thomaston
Many downtowns have been able to stay in their historic courthouses by building or rehabilitating other buildings as annexes for additional office space nearby. Through county and state grants, Upson County is currently rehabilitating its 1908 Neoclassical Revival building in downtown Thomaston to continue to house the court functions and judges’ offices, and is using a rehabilitated building across the street for additional office space. Hall County recently added an annex for extra space to accompany its 1937 Stripped Classical courthouse in downtown Gainesville, which sits across from the federal courthouse.
If more land or buildings are not available for expansion, some counties have moved to other vacant downtown buildings more suitable for their growing needs and turned the courthouse into community space or additional offices.
Comparing Apples and Oranges
In some situations, costly rehabilitations are not necessary. According to the Pyburn study, major renovations are estimated to cost $96 per square foot, but moderate renovations are $56 per square foot and just $22 per square foot for minor renovations. Experts warn that estimates for new buildings do not include the added costs of building in a previously undeveloped area.
“Moving a courthouse or city hall out of downtown often requires the construction of infrastructure, thereby dramatically increasing the public costs associated with building the new courthouse or city hall,” says Mr. Bennett. Infrastructure includes items such as roads, sidewalks and curbs, outdoor lighting and water, sewer, power and telephone lines.
“The infrastructure to support a new courthouse built on a highway bypass and the tax money that goes into building development around a courthouse makes no sense when all of that exists downtown,” says Paul Simo, Main Street Design Assistance manager for The Georgia Trust. “Often, the infrastructure costs more than the courthouse itself.” In addition, since many of these complexes are built surrounded by paved parking lots instead of walkable commercial centers, chances are workers in these buildings will have to get in their cars and drive to shop or eat on their lunch breaks, creating more vehicle traffic on roads.
"Some in the county may say a new building costs less than rehabilitating a historic one, but they may be talking about building a cheap, plain-looking box," says Steve Storey, manager of design services for the Department of
Community Affairs' Rural Development Division. "Ten or twenty years from now, will the citizens of the county really want that as the symbol of their community?"
Pride of the Community
For those counties who have invested in rehabilitating their courthouses, the results have been rewarding. Counties such as Decatur, Wayne and Haralson have rehabilitated their courthouses, which have elevated them to regional landmarks.
Sensing the importance of preserving their courthouse, the citizens of Colquitt County voted for a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum to raise money to restore their 1902 Neoclassical building in downtown Moultrie (site of the Trust’s fall Ramble) and construct an annex across the street. Recently the county received a Transportation Enhancement (TE) grant for $1 million to improve the streetscape for the entire downtown and courthouse grounds.
“We knew we needed to restore our courthouse and improve the look of downtown to attract businesses,” says Marion Hay, former Colquitt County administrator. “The results have been amazing. Now there’s not an empty storefront downtown and our town is really booming.”
The courthouse was named a “perfect courthouse in Georgia” by “The Georgia Journal,” and according to Moultrie Main Street Manager Amy Johnson, the building has become the centerpiece of the community. “People travel here to see our courthouse,” says Ms. Johnson. “Every day I look outside and see people taking its picture. It has really given citizens a sense of pride.”
Pride can also translate into economic benefits for the community. “The presence of the courthouse downtown strengthens the downtown as a symbol of the economic health, local quality of life and pride in the community, which are important factors in industrial, commercial and professional recruitment efforts,” says Mr. Bennett.
While every community is facing a different set of issues, there are alternatives to moving out of a historic courthouse, and plenty of arguments for rehabilitating it to remain a vital part of the downtown.
“Courthouses are more than brick and mortar,” says Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert O. Benham. “Throughout the history of this state they have been the focal point of community activity and the cornerstone of community values. In essence they are places where public officials serve, citizens share and the community sacrifices for the public good. In preserving these buildings we preserve our time-honored traditions and principles.”
Texas Courthouse Program Paves Trail
Georgia is second only to Texas in numbers of historic courthouses and counties in the
United States, making the Lone Star State a natural place for Georgia preservationists
to look for courthouse preservation solutions.
After the entire state’s historic courthouses were listed on the National Trust’s 11 Most
Endangered list in 1998, Texans took action. Through creative legislation and public
support, the Texas Historical Commission began operating the Texas Historic
Courthouse Preservation Program, which provides partial matching grants to Texas
counties for the restoration of their historic courthouses. Since the program was
launched in 1999, Texas legislature has appropriated $50 million in grants in its first
biennium and $50 million for the current biennium, as well as $45 million in bonds. So
far, the program has awarded more than $96 million in matching grants to 69 counties.
Impressed with this program, the Joint Study Committee on Historic Preservation
recommended the General Assembly, the Historic Preservation Division (HPD) of the
Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Association County Commissioners of
Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association examine legislative and funding initiatives
for the protection of Georgia’s historic county courthouses and city halls. This group,
along with the Trust, commissioned the Pyburn study through a grant from HPD. The
initiative calls for an analysis of conditions and preservation needs, cost estimates,
technical assistance requirements and grants assistance.
“All the elements are in place for us to achieve the same sort of success as Texas,”
says Dr. Ray Luce, director of HPD. “We have wonderful courthouses and citizens who
care about their future. A courthouse preservation program could be a catalyst to provide
transformations across the state similar to what has taken place in Texas.”