Wednesday, July 15, 2015

2015 Most Endangered Historic Places: Historic Courthouses and Courthouse Squares

N Augusta Street in Staunton, with the Augusta County Courthouse
visible at right, in front of Barristers Row.

Historic Courthouses and Courthouse Squares - Statewide

Significance:  An integral part of many historic downtowns, Virginia’s historic courthouses and courthouse squares have served as community centers for centuries. Not only do these structures represent the judicial system and the important cases along with the individuals throughout our nation’s history, courthouses were often the place for important announcements, auctions, marketplaces, weddings and even duels.

Threat: As courts continue to require increased space and security, preservation debates surrounding Virginia’s historic courthouses will continue. Approaches to preserve these structures have varied across the Commonwealth. Some communities have found innovative ways to preserve historical integrity while also integrating necessary upgrades. Others have built additions that overwhelm the historic complexes. Others still have completely relocated courthouse functions, jeopardizing the sustainability of the original complex and downtown location.

For example, the Augusta County Courthouse (1901) is threatened with abandonment by the County government. Augusta County wishes to build a new court system away from the traditional city center of downtown Staunton, which will remove employees and potentially other related businesses, weakening Staunton’s successful downtown economy. In Northampton County, a lack of funding and the threat of demolition by neglect of the two historic jails (1899 and 1914) may undermine the value of the historic courthouse square.

Rebecca Larys and Nan Bennett announce the thematic listing in Eastville on
May 18, 2015 at the Northampton County courthouse precinct.  

Solution: Preserving historic courthouses and accommodating modern court needs requires a strategic balancing act. The integrity of historic courthouses and courthouse squares can be maintained to help support downtown economies. We recommend a comprehensive survey of historic courthouses. This will help identify model approaches that are transparent and include public input to ensure that the community’s values and economic impact are reflected.

In the case of the Augusta County Courthouse, City and County governments have been negotiating an agreement of mutual support. One potential solution is for the County and City to pursue consolidation of the courts now serving the two jurisdictions.  This solution, which may require legislative approval, has potential to save funding and increase efficiency while continuing court functions in downtown Staunton.  Building upon the feasibility study that recommended the re-use of the structure, with incentives and utilization of the historic tax credit process, a universally-accessible court system can be developed that will serve the county well.  If needed, additional room for court offices, court rooms and other functions is readily available in adjacent historic and modern buildings.
In Northampton County, the earlier re-use of the 1731 courthouse is a model for how the retention of courthouse-related structures maintains the thread of history in a community. We encourage both approaches.

Frank Strassler, Executive Director of the Historic Staunton Foundation,
announces the thematic listing on May 18, 2015 at the R. R. Smith Center for History and Art.  

Update (7/15/15):  Approximately 70 courthouses are listed individually or as contributing resources in historic districts on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.  Although these distinguished resources serve as the center of government, they are threatened by time and the elements, as well as modernization and the challenge to meet the needs of the public in the 21st century.  In addition to the examples mentioned in the listing itself, Dickinson Courthouse, Halifax Courthouse, and Charlotte Courthouse all face similar challenges.  Since 2012, discussions have been underway between community members, local government, and historians to determine the best way to adapt the Thomas Jefferson-influenced Charlotte County Courthouse. 

As the thematic, statewide Most Endangered listing and these additional examples suggest, this is a timely and important preservation initiative faced by communities across the Commonwealth.  It is essential that groups come together to identify ways to meet the needs of the public while maintaining the historical, cultural, and architectural integrity of these prominent structures.  Since the listing and ongoing work on this topic by both organizations, it has been decided that Preservation Virginia will co-host with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources a symposium to be held in 2016 that addresses these very issues.  This symposium will be designed to accommodate a statewide audience of citizens, local elected officials and staff, and organizations interested in finding agreeable solutions for Virginia’s historic courthouses and courthouse precincts.  Stay tuned for more information.

Selected Links:

Contact:  For more information, please contact:
Lauren Gwaley, Associate Director of Public Relations and Marketing, Preservation Virginia, (804) 648-1889 x304;
(Augusta County) Frank Strassler, Historic Staunton Foundation, (540) 885-7676,
(Northampton County) Joan Wehner, Northampton Historic Preservation Society, (757) 678-5864; and Nan Bennett, Northampton Historic Preservation Society, (757)-999-1299;   

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