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Project will restore courthouse’s grandeur

While the feeling of stately grandeur evoked by Jackson’s historic courthouse has remained over the years, many of the original features of the building have not. Little by little, the courthouse architects, McMillan Smith and Partners out of South Carolina, hope to peel away layers of renovations and return some of the historical detail to the structure.

The three-story old courthouse was built in 1912 in a neoclassical, neotraditional style of architecture, says lead project architect Donny Love. A concrete foundation, unusual for the time, was poured, and wooden beams, including hemlock, were trucked up the steep hill to form the structure. It probably wasn’t an easy process, Love says.

“It would have been difficult, especially for the time, to build in that location,” he says. “With the types of equipment they had, it would have been seemingly difficult to transport the materials to the top of the hill and place them.”

The original building was actually red, not the stark white it is today. Most of its features were very much in keeping with the trends of the early century, including two story columns and a second story porch. Intricately carved banisters ran along each stairwell, and detailed wood trim covered the walls. Arches provided architectural detail common to the period.

But around the 1960s, the building underwent some heavy modifications. The wooden detail was removed, and staircases and the balcony overlooking the courtroom were replaced. The floor was covered over. Such updates were common in that era, Love says, and were meant to provide buildings with a more modern look — but they also erased some of the original detail.

“If they make it through that time period, often they’re not renovated and the original detail is still intact,” Love says.

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The Jackson County courthouse hadn’t escaped that fate. The county hired Love’s firm to restore the building and design the library wing that will connect to it. But there was a challenge — there weren’t any original plans to draw from.

“There weren’t blueprints. Back then, they didn’t do a lot of drawings,” Love says.

Love’s firm had to go back and measure each room. As for determining what the original courthouse actually looked like, Love and his colleagues lucked out.

“The courthouse in Madison County was built by the same architect from essentially the same set of drawings,” says Love. “We visited that one to get an idea of what this building looked like before it was modified in the 1960s.”

The Madison County Courthouse had not undergone the same renovation cycle that Jackson County’s had, so it’s served as a roadmap for the architects in recreating the historical detail of Jackson’s.

Not every detail will be restored in the current renovation process, estimated at around $1 million for the courthouse alone. The large clock that hangs on the front of the courthouse, for instance, will stay, though it wasn’t part of the original structure. Initially, the area where the clock was likely had a skylight for the courtroom, Love says. The area was closed up, and the clock was placed on the building.

Other parts of the courthouse will look noticeably different than they do today. Plans call for replacing all the stairs leading up to the building, and placing streetlights along them as was the case originally.

With the groundbreaking of the new library last Saturday, work is already under way at the courthouse. One of the biggest challenges encountered so far is the stabilization of the site, which sits atop a steep hill. Plans call for the library building to come up to the edge of the hill, so a large retaining wall has had to be built.

“We’ve had to make the slope work with the building,” Love says.

Despite the challenges, Love says working on an old building, even one that doesn’t exactly resemble its historical self, is endlessly fascinating.

“It’s always neat to go in a building and try to understand what took place in it,” he says. “I think in this building, there wasn’t very much of the historic building left, but nevertheless you can still get kind of a neat feel for what it must have been like to sit in those offices and look over the whole town.”

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