Local News

Chatham courthouse to rise from ashes

Posted March 25, 2011 1:51 p.m. EDT
Updated March 25, 2011 6:04 p.m. EDT

— One year after fire consumed the landmark Chatham County Courthouse, work is proceeding to replace the historic building.

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 look at it every day, and I go, 'Aw, I hate this,'" said Vicky Oldham, a Pittsboro native and co-owner of S&T Soda Shoppe, which is a block from the courthouse circle. "I just always thought it would be there, and to see that disgraced and in that condition just was horrible."

County leaders were determined to rebuild, so they hired crews to stabilize the brick walls and install a temporary roof to protect what was left of the interior. They said they felt it was important to save what they could and build around it.

"We cleared out the debris – it took us two or three days – and we were shocked actually to see how much was left," Chatham County Public Works Director David Hughes said.

Part of the second floor was intact, and officials want to use that for a courtroom that will hear some cases and can accommodate public events. The building also will house judicial offices, a museum for the Chatham Historical Association and a visitor center.

A sprinkler system will be installed in the building to help fight any future fires inside, officials said.

"I think everybody is much more optimistic," Hughes said. "We can see at the end of the tunnel that we are going to rebuild this structure. It's going to look very much the same."

Plans for the rebuilt courthouse are being finalized, and construction is expected to be finished by late summer 2012. A cost estimate for the project hasn't been determined, but county officials say insurance should cover most of it.

"It's going to just make me so happy," Oldham said. "It's going to make me so happy because (the courthouse) is Pittsboro. It's our symbol. It's like our little icon, and it just makes me proud to have it there."

Superior Court cases have been heard in an empty auditorium and a former library for the past year. The county plans to build a $21.1 million Judicial Center a few blocks from the courthouse to house most courts and related offices. That building is expected to be complete by the end of next year.