It’s been a while since we could post an update on the Historic Courthouse restoration project, mainly because we have been heavily involved in a process of discovery (appropriate word for a courthouse) and getting price estimates for what it will cost to put the building back into operational, code-compliant condition. So, with apologies, this post will be a long one, but we think it is important for people to understand the process, what is involved, what is at stake and to give the public the most accurate and correct information possible. Before moving forward, here is a short recap of the history of the project.
• In 2017, the County held a referendum election to put forth a ballot for the public to vote on whether the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax would be renewed. On that ballot were three very specific projects for which, with public approval to do so, money would be bonded (borrowed) against the SPLOST proceeds, so that needed projects could be started as soon as possible. The restoration of the Historic Courthouse was one of these three public-approved projects and 84% of those who voted in the referendum approved the continuation of the SPLOST and the bonding of funds to help start the major projects.
• In 2018, the County selected Garbutt Construction and Lord Aeck Sargent Architects to handle the design-build restoration project from among a competitive group of builders and architects. The selection committee consisted of judges, clerks and staff who each independently evaluated every submission and when the scores were totaled, chose the firm they felt brought the most experience and expertise to this project. The Board of Commissioners accepted this recommendation and awarded the contract accordingly.
• Funding for the project consisted of a minimum of $2 million in bonded SPLOST funds, with the remainder to be from other sources included unbonded SPLOST, the courthouse fund, grants if available and possibly general fund monies. This phase of rehabilitation is intended on modernizing critical and failing building systems such as mechanical, climate control, electrical/phone/data wiring, plumbing, a modern elevator and building stabilization. Cosmetic repair and restoration would also be part of the program as funding permited. The overall objective here was to achieve a safe, efficient and usable building while preserving the unique architectural and historical attributes that make the building special. This project, once begun, should be a 12-15 month process, depending on what issues may have to be mitigated in the restoration process.
So that, in a nutshell, is the history of how this came to be a project. Now let’s talk for a minute about the need for the project and what we hope to accomplish when it is complete. Being completely upfront here, our Historic County Courthouse is 121 years old. Since the day the builder turned the keys over to Judge Carmichael, the building has been in continuous use, every single year, as a courthouse and a county office building. Up until 2006, the building was the primary government building for the county, in addition to housing the court functions. During all that time, aside from some repairs and a few small renovations and “fix up” projects done prior to the 1980’s, nothing substantial has been done to bring the interior and the building systems up to modern code because of funding and disruption of the courts.
Some may remember a major exterior renovation that was done in 1998, but keep in mind that this only addressed critical exterior needs such as repointing the brick, stabilizing trim pieces and replacing the roof system so that the rain would stop coming into the building and causing further damage. There wasn’t funding available to address the failing electrical system, the insufficient elevator, the inadequate plumbing, the underserved water distribution systems, or the comfort and climate inside the building. Today the situation we find ourselves in is that, while the building is structurally sound and the foundation is still good, the components that make the building safe and operational are in a state of near failure.
When the building was built, Jackson did not have electricity or water, so the courthouse was not built for things that today are an absolutely necessity. Much of the wiring that makes up the electrical system of the building was originally installed when the electricity came to Jackson in 1911. Over the years, as electrical consumption needs increased due to the addition of modern office equipment, the system became overburdened and was added onto, patched up with wiring on top of wiring. Every summer, multiple window air-conditioning units are running in offices throughout the building, adding to the stress and workload of the antiquated electrical system and blowing fuses, and this is on top of lighting fixtures, copy machines, computers, metal detectors, microwaves, coffee makers, audiovisual systems and other electrical devices found in modern offices today. The situation is to the point that it presents a very real danger to the building if the electrical system is not completely replaced. It simply does not meet modern code requirements and therefore must be replaced.
Multiple-floor government buildings require an elevator that has a certain amount of capacity and safety redundancy built in to it. The current courthouse elevator, which came out of a personal residence, cannot hold more than a wheelchair and one standing occupant and it has to be manually operated to go from floor to floor. While this was a good solution at the time it was installed several decades ago, and while it addressed a critical need for accessibility, it too no longer meets modern code requirements and therefore must be replaced.
Running water was also in the future when the building was constructed, and as a result it was not built with plumbing in mind. When water came to Jackson, plumbing was installed in a building that had already been built and required modifications to run pipes to the areas of the building that needed it. This included constructing bathrooms in a building that did not have any space designated for this feature, requiring further modifications. The report cites limited bathroom space for women and insufficient handicap accessibility and the condition of the bathrooms currently still functioning in the building and the water distribution that serves it is dire. They do not meet modern code requirements and therefore must be replaced.
Preservation of a historic public building requires more than just bringing the building up to code. The building itself must be protected from potential hazards and dangers to old buildings such as fires. The historic courthouse is one of the few public buildings in Butts County that does not have a fire suppression system, or a sprinkler system as it is more commonly known. These are designed to suppress and prevent a sudden or smoldering fire from spreading and consuming the building until the fire department can arrive and directly attack the fire. Current public building code requires that a sprinkler system be installed to prevent damage and destruction in the event of a fire. As a side note, keep in mind that the courthouse is 97 feet tall, currently the tallest building in the county. If a fire started in the third floor or in the tower, we would require a ladder truck to get water and equipment to that elevation to fight a fire, not to mention that a number of buildings in the county we have now are over 50 feet in height, including some of our historic churches, distribution centers and industrial plants. This is a side note as mentioned, but since the need for a ladder truck has been brought up as well, we thought it should be mentioned here.
This overview has been mainly to cover the things that must be done to make this building safe, efficient and preserved for future generations. These have been findings made by competent, credentialed specialists with a solid track record of restoring buildings of these types. Now that we know, and have that knowledge, it has to be acted upon and fortunately, the voters of Butts County chose to allocate SPLOST funds to make this happen. We can no longer defer these concerns until a future date, for to do so at this stage, with the knowledge we now have about the complete conditions we are dealing with would not be serving the best interests of the citizens.
The design-build team has put together several pricing options for the County to look at and consider. We asked them to structure this in a way that addressed the most critical needs of the building, the things that must be done, first. We then asked them to present pricing options for additional work, keeping in mind that some jobs are much less expensive and invasive to occupants if they are done in conjunction with other renovation work. Finally, we asked them for a total, all-inclusive turnkey price that completely addresses everything that needs to be done to the building to put it back in excellent condition from the foundation to the steeple. We feel like this is information that we all need to know and to be able to discuss. It doesn’t mean that we are going to do it all now but we have know what the options are to make the best, most informed decisions.
The first option addresses the most critical components of the project, including:
• Demolition Work
• Total Electrical System Replacement
• Fire Suppression System
• Elevator System
• First Floor Only Finishes
Estimated Price: $2,450,842.00
The second option addresses all of the above plus:
• Complete Heating and Air Conditioning for 18k square feet
Estimated Price: $2,974,521.00
The third option addresses all of the above, plus:
• All interior finishes, 1st and 2nd floors
• Door replacements
• Handrail Safety Modifications
• Below grade waterproofing
• Second Floor Restrooms
• Window Repair (from window A/C units)
• New staircase to basement
Estimated Price: $4,549,829.00 or $252.00 per square foot
Some information about the third option to clarify what it means. Options 1 and 2 do not include any renovations on the second floor other than plumbing and electrical system. The second floor would be prepped for a future renovation but would not be part of the first two pricing options. Keep in mind that the second floor is largely the courtroom which is two floors high. The metal grocery store doors would be replaced with wooden doors such as what was originally on the building. Stair rails would have an added safety modification to bring them up to code while retaining their appearance. New restrooms would be added to the second floor and office spaces on that floor would be restored to proper appearance. Windows around the building that have been damaged from all of the window air conditioning units would be repaired. A number of invasive plants around the building that are contributing to foundation damage and water intrusion would be removed and the foundation would be waterproofed. Finally, a new staircase to the basement would be constructed to replace the shaky one currently in place.
Some exterior repairs would also be made, including fixing some loose slates on the roof and some trim that has become loosened over the last 20 years. All that is part of the total plan that we asked them to generate so we would know what it would cost and not just be throwing wild numbers out there.
In closing, we wanted the public to be aware of the findings and cost estimates we were presented with. This is the most comprehensive evaluation that has ever been done of our Historic National Registry Courthouse and we will look at each option and make the best determination of what we can do with the funding available.
Attached are some diagrams that show the future use for the spaces on the ground floor which we have already put out to the public a few months ago. We are excited about the prospects for turning the building from a high-use courthouse facility into a more publicly accessible building that will house the Chamber of Commerce, the Butts County Visitor’s Center, the Development Authority of Butts County and have available meeting space for other groups. We are in talks currently with the Arts Council about space use in the courthouse and having new space to house their permanent art collection, holding art shows and events and more. The future of this building is very bright and with the right vision, it can become an economic development, business, cultural, historical and tourism engine for the County.