Old courthouse renovation: Q & A

Published 11:16 am Friday, November 18, 2011

GATESVILLE – Gates County officials have been peppered with questions as they move forward with several capital improvement projects in the county.

To learn more about the need for these projects, the Gates County Index arranged for a meeting with Board of Commissioners Chairman Graham Twine, Vice Chairman Kenneth Jernigan and County Manager Toby Chappell. That two-hour meeting covered questions and answers regarding the new library, the takeover and expansion of the wastewater treatment facility along US 158, the planned renovation of the county’s historic courthouse and other “talking points.”

The third in this series of articles deals with the possible renovation of the county’s historic courthouse. That Federal style facility, completed in 1836, is showing its age with cracks to the foundation as well as work needed inside. It is one of a small number of ante-bellum courthouses remaining in the state and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It is also a part of North Carolina’s Civil War History Trail.

As part of the effort to save the historic structure, the Gates County Commissioners interviewed seven architectural engineering firms on Oct. 26.


What plans are in the works to save the old courthouse?

Twine: “It’s our desire to stabilize the building and save it for future generations. That courthouse represents a lot of history here in Gates County. I made a statement at one of our recent (commissioners) meetings that we had to do something (with that building). The reason I made that statement was I felt no one was really thinking about what to do to save the old courthouse. When I made that statement I saw three options for that building: (1) to turn it over to the Gates County Historical Society, even though I feel they don’t want it; (2) invest funds to save it; or (3) tear it down and put a parking lot there. I hate to even think about that last option, but I’ve heard others say that’s what should be done there. I don’t want to see it torn down, there are names on the walls there of my Gates County relatives.”

Chappell: “I think the Historical Society wants that building, but I don’t think they have the funds to maintain it, to financially keep it up. Once the commissioners select an architectural firm, the understanding I have from the commissioners is that they plan to do a scope of work that phases in the work. First they will look to stabilize the building, then look for the ability to renovate it and then re-purpose it. This will be a multi year, long term project. In my opinion I think we need to develop a committee – composed of county staff members, a commissioner or two, members of the Historic Society, a representative from the town of Gatesville and some interested citizens – so they can begin the process of looking at all the different scenarios….available grant funding, what are other purposes for the old courthouse….and report back to the commissioners and to the public of three-to-five options that are viable alternatives.”


If restored, what could the old courthouse be used for?

Twine: “I see it being possibly used as a museum, possibly used for the town government offices (town hall) for Gatesville; and we’ve talked about refurbishing the old courtroom for theatrical performances.”


Is there grant money available for restoration of this historical structure?

Twine: “We think there is. Moving forward we have no idea at this time of what the costs will be to restore the building. We’ll have to get those numbers from an architectural engineer. Whatever we do as far as restoration we’ll have to do it in phases; it’s going to be a project that will take a while to complete. One thing that I will promise as a commissioner is that I will not let the old courthouse become another Sunbury School. What happened in Sunbury should never have been allowed to happen, and we can’t change that now. We’re looking at an outside entity coming in and saving Sunbury School, that might be the same case with the old courthouse.”


Other than the restoration effort, is there anything the county can do with the old courthouse?

Twine: “There’s not much we can do with it the way it is right now. It doesn’t make for a good library area. We can’t add on to it, there’s no room around it for any type of addition; it’s pretty much landlocked. The outside wall is braced, but I can’t figure out if that brace was put there to really help hold up that wall or make it look like something was being done. I don’t think that brace will hold up if that wall really decided, all at once, to fall. It’s like I said before, we really don’t know what the cost to save it will be until we can get an engineer in here to take a look at it.”


You spoke earlier of an outside entity possibly purchasing the old Sunbury School. Are you able at this point to share any information on that possible sale?

Twine: “A New York couple is looking at purchasing that property. What we’re being told is they may close on the deal as early as December.”

Chappell: “I’m not confirming or denying the possible sale of the school to a couple from New York, but when the sale of that property does take place it will be done in two separate sales. We, the county, would sell it to Preservation North Carolina and Preservation North Carolina would, the same day, sell it to the buyer.”

Twine: “They (Preservation North Carolina) will monitor the sales contract to make sure any type of restoration performed at the school is done to meet their specifications.”

Chappell: “That’s the important part to all this….once Preservation North Carolina owns the property and before they sell it to anyone, they would put restrictions and covenants in place that mandate what the restoration can and cannot look like, the timeline of those restorations and that the buyer keeps the historic qualities in place. Even in private hands, they cannot destroy the historic value of the building.”

Twine: “The building can’t be demolished, it can’t be destroyed and the buyer knows that up front. All four buildings there have to be restored. The same applies to the old courthouse; I will fight to prevent it falling into disrepair.”


Next: Clearing up allegations

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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