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Order in the Court

Project: The Giles County Courthouse, Pearisburg, VA

Architect: HDH Associates, PC, Christiansburg, VA: John P. Cone, Jr., project architect; Mason B. Montgomery, project manager

General Contractor: Thor, Inc. General Contractors and Engineers of Roanoke, VA

By Lynne Lavelle

On the southwestern Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail lies the town of Pearisburg. Famed for its stunning scenery and Civil War history - it is home to the Andrew Johnston house where Dr. William Wirt McComas organized the Pearisburg Reserves – the town celebrates its official bicentennial this year.

Among Pearisburg's historic landmarks is the Giles County Courthouse on the town square. The two-story Federal building was constructed in 1836 by Thomas Mercer at a cost of $5,000, and subsequently expanded by the county to incorporate two flanking additions: a two-story wing with a courtroom on the second floor, and a three-story county jail. These and the original structure comprised load-bearing brick walls supporting wood framing, plus a hip roof with a cupola containing a single bell, which was used to warn the townspeople of impending danger. A four-column portico was added to the front of the building at a later date.

The courthouse was placed on the Virginia Department of Historic Resources list of protected historic buildings in 1982. However, maintenance in intervening years was limited. No upgrades were made to the antiquated electrical and heating systems, the original wood shake roofing was replaced with asbestos shingles, and the exterior brick masonry was coated with thick paint to prevent the deterioration of the lime-based mortar. Periodically, the windows were replaced with locally sourced stock windows, and two 17ft.-tall windows in the courtroom were closed on the interior side, presumably to guard against assassination attempts.

In addition to its deterioration, and sub-standard repairs, the courthouse lacked handicapped access to the second-floor courtroom. Seeking to address this, the court mandated in 1998 that an elevator be installed in the main building. The court enlisted HDH Associates of Christiansburg, VA, to carry out a feasibility study, during which the firm determined that constructing an elevator shaft inside the existing structure would damage the wood framing, occupy much-needed space and seriously compromise the historic exterior roof line.

Rather than squeeze the elevator into the building in its existing state, the county opted to completely renovate it. As well as a discreet new elevator on the exterior, the revised design included new exterior windows, roof replacement and up-to-date heating and air conditioning, plus new lighting and wood paneling in the judge's chambers and offices. Work began in 1998, and was aided by a rural development grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The new elevator is situated between the chimney of the original building and the exterior corner adjacent to the early addition; the arrangement allowed adequate clearance without disrupting the appearance of the roof or taking up much-needed space. "To provide the overhead clearance required by code within the original building footprint would have required the elevator tower to go through the existing roof," says project architect John P. Cone, Jr. "That was unacceptable, so the question became: how do we design an elevator on the exterior and make it 'disappear?' So we moved it outside, and matched the brick and windows."

By 1998, the original windows had been replaced several times. However, those in place were poorly constructed, mismatched between the upper and first floors, and in some cases, had been treated with lead paint. HDH selected the Graham Window Company of York, PA, to provide the new windows. The lead-contaminated windows were removed and safely disposed of. The new windows were constructed in extruded, color-coated aluminum for minimal maintenance, and their design was based on evidence of the original window construction found on the second floor. "As I examined the windows, those on the second floor appeared to be heavier and better built," says Cone. "Also, there was a brick mold around these windows that appeared to be either the original, or close to it." The company fabricated a special aluminum extrusion that matched this mold exactly, and replicated it throughout the building. And in the courtroom, the tall windows were re-opened, and lined with bulletproof glass.

A civil war-era photograph revealed that the original roof was probably constructed of wood shingles. However, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources relaxed its rules on replicating original materials – ordinarily a condition of approval – and agreed to a new standing-seam copper roof. The roofing is of field-fabricated 16-oz. copper pans, installed by traditional methods.

With the building envelope secured, the firm turned its attention to the courtroom and chambers. The renovation was an opportunity to make some welcome changes to the courtroom arrangement, which, as it stood, positioned the jury with its back to the judge and facing the witness box. To approach the judge, lawyers had to walk behind the jury box, where there was limited space. And, as the judge's bench was very close to the back wall, courtroom staff regularly had to disturb the judge to reach their seats.

"The judge didn't like that," says Cone. "It was a very unusual arrangement, and one that didn't afford the judge or legal counsel much privacy, but someone thought it was a good idea back in 1883." Two rows of audience seating were sacrificed to move the jury seating forward, permitting better access to the judge and creating space for state-of-the-art communications and video equipment. In addition, secure access was provided between the judge's chambers and the courtroom so, as Cone says, "the judge didn't have to enter the courtroom arm-in-arm with the accused."

During construction, the firm discovered a Greek Revival wood cornice at the rear of the courtroom, above a suspended acoustical tile ceiling. It depicted traditional triglyphs and metopes, and appeared to be original. The county issued a change order to retain the cornice, and the firm incorporated it into the final design. "We had to put in a higher ceiling than we'd planned, and we omitted the acoustical tile we'd designed," says Cone. "We put in a gypsum wallboard ceiling above the cornice and used surface instead of recess lighting because we had to go right up against the existing wood framing. It turned out to be a very nice addition to the design." Much of the original cherry wood paneling was renovated, and matching new cherry wood paneling was added.

The Greek Revival molding was just one of many surprises uncovered by the firm. No plans existed for the building, so at every turn, the firm had to guess what lay behind existing finishes, walls and floorboards. The lack of documentation was most problematic when the heating system was changed from steam to hot water. There was no provision for new pipe space in the building, and the firm was forced to create its own. "We planned for it, but we still ran into things that were unexpected," says Cone. "From time to time, we would put a pipe through a floor and discover that there was a beam in the way. We had to drop ceilings, steal corners and so forth."

After eight years of near-continuous work, the Giles County Courthouse was rededicated on May 27, 2006, in a ceremony attended by residents from across the county. The renovations were so well received that there are tentative plans to renovate the adjacent Sheriff's building, which also dates from the 1830s. TB

 

 

 
 

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