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Crews resurrecting Chatham courthouse after fire

Posted April 26, 2012

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— More than two years after fire consumed the landmark Chatham County Courthouse, crews are working to rebuild it.

A March 25, 2010, fire gutted the courthouse and caused its iconic clock tower to collapse. Authorities later determined the fire was accidentally started by workers doing exterior renovations to the building and that the blaze quickly spread inside the attic.

Nobody was injured in the fire, but many community members mourned the loss of the courthouse, which was built in 1881.

"I hate it myself. My wife, she cried about it," said Chester Barker, who operates a barber shop near the traffic circle where work on the remains of the courthouse are slowly progressing.

"It's ugly like it is. I want it to be pretty. You know, fix it like it was," Barker said.

Taylor Hobbs, the architect in charge of the $6.6 million rebuilding project, said during a Thursday tour of the courthouse that he was impressed that the brick walls remained strong after the fire's damage.

"That survived. That was the structure. So, we are just reusing it," Hobbs said.

Workers were surprised to find an archway in the lower level of the building that had been covered by brick, he said. Some people have speculated that it was part of a tunnel, but he said that would be unlikely given the building's placement.

Archway in Chatham County Courthouse Hidden arch in Chatham courthouse prompts speculation

"It's unclear exactly what it was," he said.

Part of the second floor remained intact after the fire, and the area will be restored as a courtroom – the former courtroom was considered the crown jewel of the old building – that can also accommodate Chatham County Board of Commissioners meetings and public events.

"This is probably the most satisfying view I've had to this point," Hobbs said as he looked at the progress made on the courtroom. "So many people's memories are on this street, looking at this building."

Even after the courtroom is restored, most Superior Court cases will be heard in the county's new Judicial Center, which is under construction a few blocks away.

The first floor of the new courthouse will house the Chatham County Historic Association museum, as well as some offices.

"This will be (for) exhibits that chronicle the history of Chatham County," he said.

By mid-June, work will begin on the outside of the courthouse, including replacing the temporary roof put in place shortly after the fire to protect what was left of the building's interior. Hobbs said crews will work on the roof in sections to keep the building dry.

The rebuilding project is expected to be finished by Christmas, giving local residents an extra present.

"I think everybody in Chatham County will be glad to see it back because that is Chatham County," barber Cadle Cooper said.

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  • affirmativediversity Apr 27, 2012

    Will it be fully wheelchair accessible?