Happy Autumn 2020! As we get ready to leave the hot months of summer behind and dive into some (hopefully) cooler fall weather in Georgia’s Outdoor Capital, I wanted to give you an update on things going on in the community and how they have been impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic. Since so many events have been and are being cancelled due to the pandemic, I’m going to focus on what we can share, which is an overview of our newest visitor and tourism offering opening in the weeks ahead.
So lets begin with an update about our new Visitor’s Center, which will be finished in November and occupied by several tenants, all of whom will be working together to promote tourism, history, arts, culture and economic development in Butts County and its cities. Last August, the old Butts County Courthouse ended its 121 year run as a courthouse and justice center and began the most complex and detailed refit process of its interior spaces and building systems since the structure was completed in 1898. In November of 2020, we will open it to the public again as the new Historic Courthouse Visitor’s Center & Museum.
Over the past 12 months, I’ve watched them literally deconstruct all four floors of this historic building, removing original knob and tube electrical wiring, leaky cast iron water pipes, asbestos, lead based paint, fluorescent lighting fixtures, ancient bathroom fixtures and parts of a radiant heating system that started out as a coal fired furnace. We’ve ripped out shaky ceiling fans, acoustic ceiling tiles and suspended ceilings. We’ve discarded the damage of badly-executed add ons that attempted to modernize the building but which really left it damaged, scarred and tired. All of this has been in an effort to take much of the interiors of the 19th century building back to its original look and finishes, while also making the building safe, efficient and comfortable for 21st century occupants. We think that has been achieved by what has been done.
The entire building now has a new, modern electrical distribution system, with all wiring encased in conduit and hidden inside of the walls. All of the surface mounted electrical switches, outlets and wires are now gone and the electrical panels, grounding systems, screw-in fuse boxes and every single component that delivers electricity to all parts of the building has been brought up to modern life safety code…out of sight and out of mind. The building can now handle the same electrical demands as any modern office building without worrying about overload and fires. As we dove into these issues, it quickly became apparent that we had been very lucky these systems had not suffered a catastrophic failure.
New plumbing and septic systems have also been put in place to distribute water through the building and carry waste water out, allowing us to expand the public restroom facilities inside as well as install, for the first time, a sprinkled fire suppression system to protect the interiors from the threat of fire. Over the years, water damage caused by improvised restrooms, leaking fixtures and pipes was obvious, and all of this has been remediated as well as a major repair of the foundation, which had been compromised by magnolia tree roots and shrubbery, and which was allowing water to enter the basement. Some of these repairs will be ongoing.
The old, inefficient radiant heating system and the hodgepodge of add-on window air conditioning units is also gone, replaced for the first time with a completely modern heating and air conditioning system that will keep the facility at constant temperatures, as well as conditioned and dehumidified. Keeping the temperature and humidity consistent throughout will go a very long way towards preserving the building and its beautiful interiors for decades to come. We have even added a modern, code-compliant new elevator and a natural gas generator to the building, as well as a rebuilt accessibility ramp on the east side to allow for easier access to the building.
None of the repairs I’ve mentioned are glamorous or even aesthetically interesting to most people, and they certainly have been the costliest part of the overall project, which has been paid for by SPLOST…but they were all long overdue and desperately needed to ensure the building remained viable. As a courthouse and justice center, however, it was obsolete and with these repairs and restorations, it is now ready for a different purpose and use.
Obviously, when you engage in a lot of demolition inside a building, there comes a point where you have to put it back together and that is what has been done for the past two months. We knew from the start that the cost of the major repairs would not allow us to restore the interior finishes for the entire building, but we knew we could at least get the ground floor and main level finished and back into daily use, even if it meant mothballing the courtroom level and attic floor until some future year when new SPLOST funding could be obtained. The good news is that all of the remaining work on those levels are cosmetic repairs and restorations and not mechanical, electrical or plumbing, because all of that is in place and ready for the future.
The visual centerpiece of the restoration will be the main level corridor that transects the entire building and opens to the porches on all four sides. This corridor will be the main area where the public will enter the building and will be visually beautiful once completed. The Georgia marble floors will shine, all of the plaster walls will be repaired and repainted in its original 1898 color and the bead board ceiling throughout will show everyone arriving how the corridor looked the day the building opened. With the suspended tile ceilings gone, the corridor is now finally restored to its original height and all of the crown molding is refinished and uncovered again.
Schoolhouse-style hanging lights will light the main corridor and offices along the way, supplemented by recessed lighting in the offices themselves. All of the original heart pine floors have been uncovered for the first time in nearly 50 years, lightly sanded and refinished to their original warm wood tones, while the door casements have been refinished and coated to protect the wood and let the grain show. Moreover, two old bathrooms have been removed that were added to the corridor, allowing natural light into the corridor again that had been missing for years. One of the most beautiful features of the Historic Courthouse will be the replacement of the old aluminum storefront doors at the four entrances with refabricated heart pine doors and panels, reproduced from old photographs of the doors before they were removed in 1970. The Butts County Sheriff’s Office, who has had a presence in the building since the day it opened, made these doors possible through seized drug funds at no cost to the taxpayers of the County.
On this main floor will be housed the offices of the Butts County Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Centers, the Butts County Arts Council, the Butts County Historical Society and the Butts County Development Authority. The County’s Government Relations Office will manage the common spaces that will be shared by these agencies, each of which plays a critical role in the promotion of our community and its cultural and tourism offerings. The Chamber of Commerce runs our visitor’s center. The Arts Council curates a tremendous collection of artwork that is displayed in our two main public buildings. The Historical Society curates other historic buildings as well as the historical aspects of Butts County and will be involved heavily in its future as a history center for the county. The Government Relations Office coordinates with movie and television production companies that want to film in Butts County and its communities, as well as oversees the building and meeting room space, while the Development Authority promotes economic and industrial development for the entire county. Both the Chamber and Development Authority will have a full time presence in the building.
The important things is that all of these entities will be working under one roof, together, for the first time, creating opportunities for promotion of the community and building our tourism footprint, which before the pandemic was generating about $700k a year in tourism sales tax for Butts County without any kind of a coordinated, concerted effort. Having all of these tourism aspects represented and sitting at the same table will allow future community events and offerings to be taken to the next level and will be of tremendous benefit to local businesses that support tourism and trade in Butts County. While working collaboratively, each will also be able to shine individually in their respective areas.
While each entity will have their own office or suite of offices, they will all share a common meeting room on the same floor. This will be ideal for their boards to hold meetings, as well as for presentations that will hopefully help attractive quality businesses and industry to our community. All of this will be beneficial to Butts County.
We’ve also set funding mechanisms in place that we hope will make the building self sufficient without having to spend local tax dollars for upkeep and operation. The Courthouse fund, which receives a portion of all fines levied in court, will be used for upkeep and and maintenance, while hotel and motel tax dedicated to tourism and promotion of the county and paid for mainly by travelers using our hotels and rental cottages will go towards operational costs of the Visitor’s Center and its supporting functions. We’re excited about the possibilities and have been very encouraged by the positive response we’ve received from our business, cultural and tourism leaders.
So what is the future of the facility and what plans are being made? We anticipate opening the building to the new occupants in November and after a settling in period and time to work through some logistical matters, we hope to open the building to the public later in November, following some sort of opening ceremony. We also have plans underway to repair and restore the grass and the lawn of the building, some of which will be done in the spring of 2021, but this required some difficult decisions to be made.
Part of the landscaping plan will include the removal of all of the shrubbery around the building and replacing it with attractive, low-maintenance plants and shrubbery. Experts who have looked at the existing shrubbery have informed us that much of it was very unsuitable for planting in such close proximity to an old building. As a result, it has caused and will continue to cause damage to the foundation and these need to be removed and replaced with less invasive plantings.
Additionally, the magnolia trees currently on the property will have to be removed. Originally planted in 1954, the trees have grown to a nearly unmanageable size but more importantly, underground examination has determined that these trees, due to their size and root system, has caused considerable damage to the foundation of the building as well as the infrastructure that feeds the building such as water and sewer pipes, cable and electrical and other underground utilities. The foundation was repaired but it was expensive and was not supposed to be part of this project. Nonetheless, had it not been undertaken, greater damage to the building would have occurred from water intrusion, one of the greatest enemies a building can have.
We have spoken with many citizens and most agreed that we cannot in good conscience leave them there, knowing the damage that they have done already and will continue to do in the future. The best course of action is to remove them and plant smaller trees that will not invade the subsystems of the building and the utilities that feed it. Smaller trees that are attractive and colorful will open the view of the building up and will actually make the yard look larger and more inviting.
Finally, we hope to eventually do the restoration of the second floor finishes where the courtroom is located in a future SPLOST, as well as replace all of the interior glass doors with wooden doors replicated from the one surviving original door. The third floor will not be opened again. Even though it has been made safe and secure, it cannot be made to meet fire safety codes without drastically altering the building. Most of the third floor is attic space anyway, with only about 500 square feet of that level available for an office space. It had already been closed off for several years before the restoration project and won’t be missed.
I’m looking forward to reintroducing the community in the weeks and months ahead to our Historic Courthouse as a Visitor’s Center, Museum, Art Gallery and Economic Development Center that will benefit the entire community for many years to come. I appreciate the tremendous interest and support I’ve seen from so many in the community about the process of bringing it back to life again so it can take its rightful place of prominence in downtown Jackson. As one of only four buildings on the National Registry of Historic Placesin Butts County, it deserves no less than to thrive and serve our community faithfully once again, as it has since it opened 122 years ago this week.
As we head into Autumn, I hope that you and yours are all staying well and keeping safe. In the meantime, enjoy this article below from our local newspaper, then known as “The Jackson Argus” covering the opening of the building in October of 1898.