Set high on a mountaintop above Sylva, the historic courthouse has long been a focal point in this Jackson County town, attracting droves of visitors and professional and amateur photographers alike.
And with a just-finished retooling and addition of a new, 22,000-square-foot library annex to the original courthouse, many here believe this stately structure will play an increasingly important role in Jackson County’s economic future.
“It’s going to be huge, a huge draw,” said Mary Otto Selzer, a former investment banker who helped lead a drive by the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library to raise $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library. “It is going to be a destination.”
Selzer said tourists, even before the opening, have been showing up and asking questions.
“The (courthouse/library annex) has tremendous presence in Sylva,” Selzer said of the moths-to-the-flame pattern visitors are already displaying. “Location, location, location.”
The $8.6 million facility opened Tuesday, with the grand opening set for Saturday, June 11.
‘Such a draw’
Down at the base of the mountain from the courthouse/library annex is the Hooper House, another renovated structure in Sylva. Interestingly, in 1999, during one of the many attempts to figure out how to accommodate the county’s need for a new library, county leaders decide to tear down the historic house down. They were trying to find room for expanding the old library next door, but opposition to the destruction prevailed. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce now has its home in the Hooper House.
On this day, Linda Worley is manning the chamber desk. She is unabashedly excited about the renovations to the county’s historic courthouse, visible through the window over her shoulder as she talked.
“I tell every tourist who comes in here about it,” said Worley, a Kentucky native who married a local boy and ended up in his hometown via a protracted spell in Florida. Like Selzer, she believes the economic potential of the renovated courthouse and addition of a library annex for Jackson County will prove significant.
“It is just magnificent — such a draw,” Worley said, turning as she spoke to admire the building towering above.
Great attention was paid architecturally to the restoration and design of the old courthouse.
Macmillan, Pazdan & Smith, the architectural firm hired to oversee the project, used historic records to return the Jackson County Courthouse to near its original state. The building was gutted during a renovation in the 1970s, and almost no original features remained. The Madison County Courthouse, which by contrast retained its original character, served as a model.
C.J. Harris, a prominent industrialist and wealthy Sylva businessman, bankrolled the $50,000 project in 1914 in return for the county seat being moved from Webster to Sylva. He also used the Madison County Courthouse as his inspiration.
Newly returned to its former glory, the Jackson County courthouse is devoted to providing space for the community, and includes an approximately 2,500-square-foot courtroom available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society also are provided in the old building.
A giant addition built to the rear houses the new library. A glass atrium connects the two, serving as the entrance to the complex. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire old library it replaces.
The importance of community continues being melded into the new structure as well. Along with a continuity of design — which Selzer accurately describes as virtually “seamless” — endless efforts are being taken to weave ties to residents. June Smith, president of the Friends of the Library group, is in charge of one of those initiatives: “Jackson County Collects,” exhibits of the community, will be prominently highlighted in a built-in display area. For the opening, Jackson County resident Dot Conner’s apron collection has garnered the coveted spot.
Planning and leadership
The Friends’ successful fundraising campaign caught the attention of other groups in the region looking for methods of raising money during these tough economic times. Betty Screven, who is in charge of publicity for the group, said the keys were planning and leadership.
“This was a professionally run campaign, even though none of us had (significant) fundraising experiences,” Screven said.
Originally, commissioners asked for $1.5 million to be raised. Then the number went to $1.6 million. Ultimately, as previously mentioned, the group brought in $1.8 million. Money left over will go toward a library endowment fund to help pay for future needs.
To Screven, the most important contributions were in many ways the smallest gestures made — she chokes up as she remembers the day she was working at the Friends of the Library’s used bookstore on Main Street, and a little girl came in, accompanied by her father, clutching a $1 bill.
“This was her allowance for the week — she came in, and said she wanted to give her $1, because someone else would then give a match of $1, too,” Screven said. “This library is truly for everybody in the county.”
That match was critical to the success of the campaign, and came about as the result of a $250,000 State Employees’ Credit Union matching grant.
“It was very inspirational to people,” Screven said, adding the grant came with the condition the building had to be 90 percent completed, which helped add concrete deadlines to the project.
A core group of about five people saw the project through, with endless help from others, said Screven, a former public-relations employee for two decades for a national bank. The official fundraising effort began in May 2008.
“It has been practically a full-time job for the core people,” said Screven, who after questioning by her sister estimated she was putting about 35 hours a week into the project.
The Friends group used the services of professional fundraisers for a few months to get the feel and structure in place, then took over without them.
“We put the right people in the right jobs,” Screven said.
What people are saying
“The past and the future of our county are visible on the hill.”
— Sue Ellen Bridgers, Jackson County resident and writer, the state’s former poet laureate
“It represents the history of Jackson County. It represents the glory and beauty of learning. It represents the literary heritage of the world. The other thing it represents is the absolute freedom to anyone who wants to come and enjoy what has become theirs.”
— Dr. John Bunn, Co-chairman of the Friends of the Library Fundraising Committee
“The public library was one of my reasons for choosing Sylva as my home in 1986. Our local area is filled with people I like to call ‘frequent readers’ because their wallets include a card for each unique library system. All of us frequent readers are eager to use the new Jackson County Public Library as a research source, a place to browse quality novels, attend community events, learn about regional history, and enjoy the revitalized courthouse complex. The public library has come such a long way. My hat’s off to all the library staff and friends.”
— Dianne Lindgren, library director, Holt Library at Southwestern Community College
“I think it’s an inspirational project that’s kind of taken on even more meaning as the project has proceeded. It’s a great example of what can happen when a community gets behind a project like that.”
— William Shelton, farmer and former Jackson County commissioner, who played a critical role in keeping the library downtown
“I was so happy when the county commissioners decided to renovate the courthouse and build an addition for the library. I knew it would be a huge asset to the town of Sylva, since the courthouse is such an icon for the town. But it also showed a lot of foresight for Jackson County, which will be elevated by the addition of not just a new library (which would raise the quality of county services a notch no matter where they located it), but one that is so unique and special in nature. The combination of modern library amenities with the historic preservation of the old county courthouse shows a local commitment to education, culture, history, and community. I feel so fortunate to live in a community that can embrace the unique, rather than shy away from it. Jackson County is special that way, even though we sometimes struggle.”
— Sarah Graham, former Town of Sylva commissioner, now employed by the Southwestern Development Commission
“‘Going to the library’ always meant an event to me, starting back when I was a toddler. It was even more exciting when the event came to us on wheels as the bookmobile. As an adult I learned that the library could be a meeting place for special events and programs ... and, on ARF days, you could even go home with furry little four-legged reading companions. But now, taking in all the splendor of the courthouse complex, I think going to the library will be a cultural experience, as well as a literary experience.”
— Rose Garrett, former staff writer at The Sylva Herald and now public information officer for Southwestern Community College
“The courthouse is for me the symbol of Jackson County. It defines Sylva now as it did when I was growing up (and when I was born in the old hospital located only a few hundred yards up the hill from the courthouse). It has gone through changes, from red brick to white, from a line of trees in front to a landscaped hillside, but it is still “the courthouse.” Whenever I see someone standing in (literally “in”) Main Street of Sylva trying to frame the building and, as one architectural guide noted, that cascade of steps, I’m reminded of how special it is.”
— George Frizzell, university archivist for Western Carolina University
“My mother, who’s the reason I’m a librarian, is hugging herself somewhere.”
— Jackson County Librarian Dotty Brunette