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Around the Clock

PROJECT
Coweta County Courthouse, Newnan, GA

ARCHITECT
Lord, Aeck & Sargent, Atlanta, GA; Jack Pyburn, FAIA, principal in charge, Courtney Swann, AIA, project architect

GENERAL CONTRACTOR
Headley Construction Corp., Newnan, GA

By Lynne Lavelle

As local symbols of the enduring values of democracy, historic county courthouses are a reassuring sight. They make up a significant percentage of the National Register of Historic Places, among them 132 from the state of Georgia that span almost 170 years of history and architectural tradition. Though Georgia's early courthouses were simple brick- and timber-framed structures, late-19th- and early-20th-century designs came to reflect community pride through the use of high-style architecture of the time, fine detailing and quality materials, monuments to local history and leaders, and memorials to war veterans.

At the Atlanta offices of Lord, Aeck & Sargent, maintaining these historic courthouses and reversing ill-advised remodeling efforts is considered one of preservation's highest callings. From exterior improvements and plaza rehabilitation at Gordon County, to Crawford County's adaptive reuse as a cultural center, no two courthouse projects are the same. However, be they Greek Revival, Federal, Neoclassical or International in style, all require creative responses to modern needs, such as changes in building systems and technology and the security demands of the judicial system.

Such was the $7.5 million restoration of Coweta County Courthouse in Newnan, GA, led by Jack Pyburn, FAIA, and Courtney B. Swann, AIA, of the firm's historic preservation studio. Built in 1904, the Classical Revival-style courthouse is the grandest of architect James Wingfield Golucke's career and testament to the longevity of his designs; of the 27 courthouses Golucke designed in Georgia, 18 remain in use and three more are still standing. Of all of them, the Coweta County Courthouse is considered the most ambitious, due to its ornate copper-clad portico and clock dome. The architect also utilized materials that were high-tech for the time, such as structural steel and cork.

"Courthouses serve as a focal point of the community, both visually and functionally," says Pyburn. "As the central figure on the downtown square, the clock tower is visible from a distance by much of the community and the courthouse served as a gathering location for community activities and functions. That activity was lost when the building was vacated, but its rehabilitation now returns activity to the city's business center."

The scope of work on the Coweta County Courthouse began from the top down, with the removal of the deteriorated copper from the clock tower walls and dome. Over the years, poor waterproofing, corroded attachments from incompatible metals and even holes from stray bullets (from mid-century pigeon shoots on the square) had taken a toll, so saving the original copper was not an option. Lord, Aeck & Sargent documented each piece of roofing and decoration, which was subsequently catalogued and transported by Steinrock Roofing and Sheet Metal, Inc. of Louisville, KY, to its metal shop. Steinrock constructed wooden forms from which thousands of new, 20-oz. hand-cut pieces were fabricated to replicate the original details then reassembled and installed on site.

Before new cladding could be installed, the clock tower was stabilized with new shoring and supplemental wood framing. While some deterioration of the tower framing was expected, the extent of the water damage and rot beneath the copper cladding was greater than originally anticipated. This was a particularly challenging stage of the project. "One whole level of tower framing had to be fully replaced," explains Swann. "This required establishing a method to support the upper tower levels while the original framing was removed and replaced. Complicating the process was the fact that the damage extended to the base of the dome roof, requiring the shoring of the bottom ring of the dome structure."

Additional exterior work included cleaning 1,580 ft. of concealed copper facia – which had accumulated more than a century's worth of oxidation, minerals and caulking – using sensitive high-speed nylon buffing machines and hand-applied techniques. Copper ornamentation and banding was patched and repaired, along with loose or missing fasteners.

Once the stains and debris had been removed, a three-step chemical process gave the bright copper repairs on the re-clad tower an appropriate aged appearance. Modified bitumen low-slope roofing by Siplast of Irving, TX, was installed for a water-tight seal, and new shingles were installed on the portico gables. The masonry (brick and limestone) was cleaned, and the limestone base was re-pointed and patched. All of the sash windows were removed, repaired and re-installed by Headley Construction. Non-original metal-clad windows in the clock tower were replaced with wood windows to match original window profiles.

The changing functions of the judicial courts had led the county to build a new judicial center for court services, leaving the historic courthouse substantially vacant. Inside the historic building, several detrimental alterations such as concrete floors, partition walls and ceilings had been added to divide rooms and add vault space. These historically inappropriate modifications were removed during a selective demolition phase, which reversed 20th-century modernizations to reveal historic fabric such as original pressed-metal ceilings, plaster detailing, crown molding and transoms and wood trim over doorways and windows.

Among the most surprising finds were the flooring and seating in the second-floor courtroom. "Small areas of original cork flooring were uncovered during the selective demolition," says Pyburn. "This discovery provided the opportunity to discuss with the county and the advisory committee the option of installing new cork flooring in the courtroom."

After a search of the official records yielded no results, a county-wide call for historic images revealed that the courtroom's main floor had once had wood theater-style seating. The restoration of the courthouse interior was furthered by a finishes analysis by Dorothy Krotzer of Building Conservation Associates, which led to the selection of historically accurate wall colors and faux-graining on the historic millwork. The latter was applied throughout the public areas of the entire courthouse.

While its interior is now an accurate representation of historic finishes, the courthouse has come into the 21st century in several important ways: a new energy-efficient HVAC system is housed in the basement and attic, and provides heating and cooling throughout the building's three stories; and a new state-of-the-art fire-suppression system was accommodated with minimal impact on historic features. Four ADA-compliant bathrooms, two on each of the main floors, as well as the building's first elevator have made the courthouse accessible to all. On the third floor, a new catering kitchen with elevator access helps accommodate special events that preserve the courthouse's original purpose as a center for community gathering.

As downtown Newnan's commercial historic district is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the relationship between the courthouse and its surroundings was of utmost importance. Working with landscape architects The Jaeger Co. of Gainesville, GA, Lord, Aeck & Sargent restored the formality of the courthouse square, removing overgrown non-historic trees and re-creating original lawns. "Historic photographs and postcards provided evidence that the courthouse was a central feature on the square," says Swann, "with a lawn for public events around the perimeter of the building. The removal of overgrown and added trees and vegetation allows the courthouse to shine once again at the center of the square."

Completed in September of 2010, Coweta County Courthouse is open for business and ready for another century of service as home to Coweta County Probate Court once more, and to the Coweta County Convention & Visitor's Bureau. The project was recently selected for an Excellence in Restoration Award by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. And despite the challenges, the clock tower restoration earned Steinrock Roofing & Sheet Metal a 2010 North American Copper in Architecture Award from the Copper Development Association and a 2011 Golden Circle Award from the National Roofing Contractors Association.  TB

 

 

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