It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit and write an update article but I’m pleased to report that the Historic 1898 Butts County Courthouse is getting an extreme makeover in 2019 as it transitions from its life as a justice center to that of a Visitor and Tourism Center. To accomplish that, the 121-year old centerpiece of the downtown square in Jackson will be extensively rehabilitated and restored over the next twelve months, with an anticipated reopening date in the early fall of 2020. Once it is completed, the renewed building will house the offices and staff of the Butts County Chamber of Commerce, Butts County Visitors Center, and the Butts County Industrial Development Authority. Additionally, through an ongoing collaboration with the Arts Council, much of their permanent collection of artwork currently housed at the Administration Building will be moved to the Historic Courthouse.

We have enjoyed a beneficial relationship with the Arts Council since 2006, when they hung the first piece of their collection in our building and I have been thrilled to work with Scott Coleman all these years since to help curate it. Today over 50 unique pieces of local and regional art and sculpture are displayed here, but because it is now being used for court, access is much more limited than it was before. Having this collection enhance our visitor’s center is a win-win for them and us because it allows tourists and citizens alike the chance to enjoy beautiful works of art at no cost, and exposes many of these artists to an appreciative public. If you’re interested in finding out more about the permanent collection, here’s a handy link to follow: LINK.

It is anticipated that the Butts County Historical Society will also be able to make use of the facility, which will have a large meeting room on the main floor available for holding meetings and events. It is my hope that receptions, arts shows and public displays will also be able to make use of the large grand hallway that spans the length and width of the entire main level. We have a number of old artifacts, documents and historical pieces that we would like to have on permanent display in the grand hallway that will showcase the history of Butts County, Jackson and our other communities. The Historical Society would hopefully be our partner in this mission to make the historic courthouse a museum of local history.

To achieve all of this though, a great deal of work must be done to rehabilitate the twelve- decade old building. Completed in September of 1898, the courthouse has been in continuous use ever since as a justice center, and this has inevitably led to considerable wear and tear on the building. You can see this as soon as you enter the building…moreover, the buildings most critical mechanical functions are in a state of near failure and must be replaced before it can function as a public event space. I’m pleased and grateful that our County Commissioners moved quickly to address these deficiencies, some of which had actually been caused by mini-renovations in the mid-20th century. To correct this issue, they authorized a voter referendum in November of 2017 to continue a 1% sales tax, with specific funds dedicated to the Historic Courthouse Rehabilitation Project. The local voters responded favorably, approving the referendum and funds began to start coming in beginning this past January of 2019.

The Courthouse Committee, which included myself, Judge Bill Fears, Judge Betsy Biles, retired Probate Clerk Virginia Harrison, Judge Sharon Sullivan and Commissioner Ken Rivers formed to select a competent design-build team and after a lengthy process, we selected Garbutt Construction, contractors and Lord Aeck Sargent, architects, to assess the complete condition of the courthouse, develop the design schematics, come up with plans and scope of work and oversee the restoration project, which focuses primarily on the interior finishes, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and climate control systems, among other things.

The exterior of the building was rehabilitated in 1998, which included repointing of bricks, repair of exterior building elements and a new slate tile roof, as well as restoration of the original clock and repainting. After that, the biggest job ahead was the known need to restore the interior but it was much more involved than just that.

The electrical system that powers the building was installed in 1911, and much of this was still in use today. As the electrical needs of the building grew, more and more was added to the existing system, creating a complicated maze of wiring that was overburdened and increasingly dangerous. The largest part of the building project will be the installation of a completely new, modern electrical system, with wiring run in conduit and out of sight, easily capable of handling today’s electrical loads.

Water distribution and waste will also be completely replaced, allowing for a more efficient design that doesn’t compromise the building’s integrity, and which will allow, for the first time, a fire sprinkler suppression system to be installed. New modern bathrooms will be constructed on the ground floor level and the meeting room on the main floor will also have water service for events that might be held in that room.

The courthouse will also feature new climate control systems throughout the building that will heat and cool the building efficiently and keep the temperature throughout at a more constant level. This will replace the inefficient boiler and radiator system used to heat it now, as well as numerous noisy window air conditioning units that make the building look less attractive and which use considerably more energy. Having an interior space in a building of this age that is kept at a more constant temperature year-round will actually increase the life of the building and preserve the original materials far better than before.

The building will also receive a new, modern elevator that meets all code and safety requirements. The elevator will access the ground, main and second floor levels. The small third floor space will not be used in the future except for storage, as it cannot be made accessible without considerable costs and structural changes to the building. All of these major mechanical changes will make the building safe, comfortable and efficient in the future.

Finally, the interior spaces on the ground level and main floor will be completely refinished to look as closely as possible to the way the building looked when new. This includes the removal of all of the old suspended ceilings designed to cover up wiring (and which also covered original beaded board ceilings) as well as replacement of broken molding, refinishing  and restoration of wood elements throughout the building, plaster repair, removal of any asbestos that was installed during previous renovations, removal of old carpet that will re-expose the beautiful heart pine floors throughout and restoration of marble floors in the grand hall.

Funding will not allow us to do the restoration on the second floor at this time, but in preparation for future funding, the demolition work on that level to remove unoriginal components will be done as part of this project, as well as the installation of wiring, plumbing and climate systems now. Once future funding is available, the second floor can be completed easily with minimal disruption to the occupants on the lower levels as all the major work will have been done already.

The first step is a lot of demolition work and people tend to panic when they hear that word because they think we are tearing down the historic building but if you’ve ever watched a home improvement show on HGTV, you know that frequently there is demo work that must be done first. The building was also completely tested for asbestos and removal of this also has to be a part of demo work inside. Fortunately, the original building had none in it and the only asbestos that was in the building was from attempts to modernize the building in the 1960’s…things like floor tiles, calking, glue used to hold press on ceiling tiles and so forth. All of this was intact so there was no loose asbestos to worry about it but it did require abatement under controlled conditions and was completely removed last week. This week demolition began in the basement suite.

As you can see from the photograph, the basement is now a big mess. All of the old CMU block had to be taken down where office spaces were created in the 60’s but this has exposed the beautiful granite foundation stone and arches that support the upper floors. This space will be completely cleaned out soon and then it will be ready for construction. Upper floors will be less invasive than this…mainly removal of old carpet covering up the wooden floors, removal of the suspended ceiling grid, and removal of an office on the second floor that was not original. The bathrooms on the first floor will have to come out too as they were not original and are not capable of being made ADA accessible.

On a positive note, hidden from sight for many years were these beautiful, original heart pine floors which can be sanded, cleaned and refinished. We don’t necessarily want them to look brand new when they are done but to look beautiful and old, as they are. Fortunately, our architectural team includes specialists in historic buildings and interior finishes and these will be given new life while retaining the character and history that lives inside of them.

One of the questions we continue to get is how the Courthouse restoration project is being funded. As I mentioned earlier, voters approved continuing a penny sales tax in 2017 and this project was one of the three major projects of that SPLOST package listed on the approval ballot when it was put out to the county voters. This measure received 84% voter approval. Of the estimated $23 million dollars that this SPLOST will generate, approximately $12 million of that will come from truckers purchasing fuel at Highway 36 and I-75, which will cover not only this project but the other major projects and several secondary projects…this way there is no financial burden placed on property tax for this project.

Of course there are also operating and future upkeep costs to consider…but when the restoration is complete, it will be the most energy efficient building the County has, costing approximately 25% less to operate than it ever has before.

Because the building is a historic building and will be used for a visitor’s center and tourism facility (in addition to other uses) it will qualify for funds that it didn’t qualify for as a courthouse such as hotel/motel taxes generated from visitors and tourists (one new hotel is already in the development pipeline for I-75 at Highway 16) which will replace part of the tax dollars used for operation and upkeep. We have also dedicated fees that we receive for filming in the County towards paying for special items like replacing the aluminum and glass storefront doors the building has currently with reproductions of the original wood and glass doors.

Finally, earlier this year the Georgia Legislature, through Representative Susan Holmes, approved and updated an existing funding mechanism for its upkeep, derived from criminal and court case fines, designed to replace the remaining tax dollars previously used for operation and upkeep.

These measures will help ensure the long-term sustainability of the building as a place that citizens and visitors alike can use and enjoy, while also removing the burden of a 19th century building from 21st century taxpayers.

Demolition of the old interior add-ons and other non-original materials has begun this month, and I am very excited about the future of our Historic Courthouse as it transitions into a showpiece that speaks to the world about Butts County and our rich history. We hope you will be too when it is complete! More to come soon!

Michael Brewer

PS: If you would like to follow the progress, here are links to our special Historic Courthouse social media accounts:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/1898courthouse

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ButtsCountyCourthouse

Note: This article originated on the local tourism website, www.jacksonbuttscounty.com