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Justice Served

Project: The Newton County Courthouse, Covington, GA Architect: OJP/Architect, Inc., Atlanta, GA; Jack Pyburn, FAIA, principal; W.A. Andrews, AIA, project architect

By Will Holloway

In the mid-1890s, having been commissioned to design a high-rise building in downtown Atlanta, GA, Thomas Henry Morgan traveled to Chicago to study emerging construction techniques of the era. A few years later, when Morgan's Empire Building (1901) was completed, it was in keeping with the Chicago style – the 14-story structure at 35 Broad Street was the first steel-framed structure built in Atlanta. In a later interview, as the story goes, Morgan said he thought it was a big mistake – that high-rise construction was not the thing of the future.

Despite Morgan's misgivings, his firm, Bruce and Morgan, went on to design the Century Building (1902) and the Fourth National Bank Building (1904) in Atlanta. Other notable designs by the firm include Samford Hall (1890) at Auburn University, Tillman Hall (1893) at Clemson University and three Second Empire-style courthouses in Georgia, including the 22,000-sq.ft. Newton County Courthouse (1884) in Covington, a small city 30 miles east of Atlanta.

"Bruce and Morgan did these historic courthouses in Georgia at a time when the South was getting its first economic rebirth after the Civil War," says Jack Pyburn, FAIA, principal of OJP/ Architect, the Atlanta firm that was hired to design the rehabilitation of the Newton County Courthouse in 2000. "Railroads were opening up rural Georgia to new markets, agriculture was strong. The courthouses of the late-19th and early-20th century represent a period of prosperity – there was a sense of optimism about the future." In some capacity, OJP/Architect has worked on all 159 of Georgia's county courthouses. In 1990, the firm authored a statewide courthouse manual geared to helping county commissioners understand the importance of their courthouses and how to make sound decisions about their improvement and maintenance; a few years ago, the Georgia Trust and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia retained the firm to examine the cost of rehabilitating all of the state's historic courthouses. The firm has done design work on 25 of the courthouses, the first in 1990.

In many ways, the story of the Newton County Courthouse is the story of countless buildings of its era. During the 20th century, the building's historic character was compromised by a number of alterations: the historic second-floor courtroom was subdivided with suspended ceilings and plywood paneling; the millwork was covered with layers of paint; the original wood windows were replaced with modern, fixed aluminum windows; and the original patterned-slate roof was replaced with compositional shingles.

"It's certainly not unique to Georgia or to courthouses, but in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, as communities were growing and new technologies was starting to invade buildings ill-prepared to accommodate them, I imagine that there were these salesmen – not unlike the infamous awning and siding salesmen – who went from county courthouse to county courthouse hawking pre-finished, 1/8-in., cheap panel board," says Pyburn.

"Everybody furred out the plaster walls in these buildings – in many cases they left the millwork, but sometimes they didn't and covered these building with this dark paneling. It's also typical for us to find drop ceilings, monumental stairwell openings that had been closed in to create small sub-optimal rooms and heart-pine floors that had been carpeted. So the volume of the spaces has been lost and the finishes have been lost – making them much more dark and depressing."

While historically the primary function of the Newton County Courthouse was serving justice, it also served, according to Pyburn, as the center of community interest, communication and activity. "People came to courthouses from the 1850s to the 1930s as a social event," he says. "If there was a trial, they were coming because it was of interest – it was what television would be for us today. It was around these trials, not all of which were savory, that people met their friends and talked about the future and did their business and politicking. So it was actually the ceremonial and community function of courthouses that precipitated these stately and often elaborate courtrooms."

In developing a rehabilitation strategy for the Newton County Courthouse, OJP/Architect focused on re-establishing the courthouse as a center of community activity. To accomplish this, the court operations were moved to an adjacent judicial center (OJP/Architect was a design advisor on the new building, which was completed in 2005) and the historic courtroom was reconfigured as the home of the county commission and a meeting place for community groups. The first step in this process was recapturing the volume of the historic courtroom, which had been divided in half. Lacking original evidence of the long-lost courtroom furnishings – judge's bench, jury box, etc. – OJP/Architect focused on contemporary function, rather than strict restoration.

"We sought to be respectful of the character of the space without trying to suggest we were recreating history in some way," says Pyburn. "When we put the county commission meeting desks [with communication technology and computers at each commissioner's seat] behind the rail, we did it in a way that works for them functionally. In many courthouses where we have worked, the judge's bench, the witness box and the clerk's desk were intact, but in Newton County, because they had so radically altered the courtroom over time, the original paraphernalia was gone – and there were no photographs, as cameras are typically barred from courtrooms during trials. From a preservation standpoint, we didn't want to attempt to recreate it in a way that wasn't historically accurate and might be confusing."

Moving the county's judicial functions to an adjacent building also eliminated the pressure on the historic setting to address modern security issues, the implementation of which could have done substantial damage to the historic fabric of the building. "Most of the courts that we have dealt with need more courtrooms than you can physically get out of these historic courthouses anyway – and they need courtrooms one-half to one-third the size of the historic courtrooms," says Pyburn. "Therefore we advise judges and commissioners to put the heavy-security court operations in a new judicial center and focus on the administrative and operational functions of the county in the historic courthouses, because the requirements of county administration activities do not grow proportional to the county. When you have a stable user like the county commission – in Georgia it's almost always five people – the security requirements are substantially reduced, if not eliminated. So our way of dealing with security at the county level is to try to realign the courthouse around its historic ceremonial and iconic role and less around its judicial role."

In OJP/Architect's initial demolition phase, non-historic elements of the courthouse were removed. In the basement, which Pyburn describes as having been a rabbit warren – and included the offices of the district attorney – narrow corridors and evidence rooms with dark paneling were removed, exposing original rubble walls. Today, the basement is home to a gallery space for the county historical society, staff meeting rooms, break rooms and mechanicals. In keeping with the rough-hewn quality of the space, Pyburn elected to leave the ductwork exposed in the basement. "We're very much attuned to how do deal with systems – either carefully concealing them, or, if you can't hide them, using them to articulate the difference between what is historic and what is not, rather than furring in ductwork and having it be confusing in terms of what the original volumes of the room are," he says.

On the first floor, which includes human resources and finance offices, an elevator and ADA-compliant restrooms were introduced. The monumental stairs on either side of the entrance vestibule were also opened up, reversing earlier alterations. The second floor includes the county commission in the former courtroom and the offices of the clerk and county manager.

In terms of recapturing the historic character of the courthouse, Pyburn points out that restoring the windows and the roof were crucial steps. "In the '70s, the historic windows were removed and replaced with aluminum fixed windows," he says, "which were failing in two ways: the joints were separating, so water was getting in, and the factory-applied finish on the aluminum was eroding and staining the building. "We found the original frames when the failed metal-window panning was removed, as well as several original window sashes in the attic. Consequently, we were able to recreate the historic-window pattern and determine the original sash and frame colors, finding an almost black finish. So we were able to get the windows back to their original character with their original color. We did take one license with the windows, and did so because we weren't dealing with the original windows and we could do it in a way that still maintained the historic sightlines – we used a 1/2-in. insulated glass, so we beefed-up the muntin profiles enough to receive insulated glass."

As with many historic buildings, a compositional-shingle residential roof had replaced the courthouse's original slate roof. Using historic postcards and photographs, OJP/Architect was able to discover the decorative slate pattern of the original roof. "Certainly the roof was a significant design feature of the original building," says Pyburn. "Restoring the volumes of the interior spaces, recapturing the heart-pine floors and plaster finishes were also substantial positive changes. We were fortunate in that most of the original millwork was still in place, so once we determined the stain characteristics, we were able to get the millwork back to its early character fairly easily. Other significant tasks included putting new systems into the building to yield a functional facility in a way that didn't detract from its historic character."

"The reaction has been wonderful," says Pyburn. "It's a really nice community and they were a wonderful client. They're dealing with growth pressures in a more thoughtful way than most jurisdictions. When we start a project like the Newton County Courthouse, the occupants are elated to leave the building and cannot imagine returning. Somewhere about 60 percent into construction, as the recaptured character of the historic building becomes visible, it suddenly becomes the place of preference. That's a lot of fun to experience." TB

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