2014 Tower Award- Reconstruction of the Chatham County Courthouse

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Reconstruction of the Chatham County Courthouse

Architect: Hobbs Architects, PA (visit website)

Location: Pittsboro, NC
100 Word Description: The Chatham County Historic Courthouse (1891) is on the National Register of Historic Places and is located in the heart of Pittsboro, North Carolina.  In March 2010 the building was critically damaged by a devastating fire, and all that remained were the heavy masonry walls.  In the two years following the fire, a design and reconstruction project for the building was undertaken and completed.  This complex project is an example of an architectural landmark that symbolizes public pride, encapsulates a sense of place, and gives meaning to the multi-layered importance of the built environment.
Architect’s Statement: The building is located in a traffic circle at the intersection of U.S. Highways 64 and 15-501, the literal heart of downtown Pittsboro.  The courthouse has always symbolized community pride and after the fire, flowers were placed on the construction fence by numerous citizens – an act unique for a tragedy involving no casualties.  The loss of the building was a deep and profound wound for the community, and as a result community input was emphasized during the programming process.  Shortly after the fire and completion of the structural evaluation, a public task force was appointed by the Chatham County commissioners to determine what residents wanted programmatically in the restored facility.  Many ideas for new uses were considered, and the consensus was to restore the exterior and the primary interior public spaces to their pre-fire appearance and uses.  The most clearly expressed sentiments by residents were to have their courthouse “back as soon as possible†and to “revive the heart of Pittsboro.”  Together with the interior and exterior restoration efforts, county officials requested improved safety, accessibility, and technology. A detailed program for the building spaces was developed during the programming phase, which required strict attention to available space in a relatively small building footprint of approximately 5,300 SF.   Throughout the design, the NC State Historic Preservation Office was consulted to ensure the original fabric and appearance of the building was maintained from space planning to material choices.  The spaces on the first floor include offices for the Chatham County Historical Association, a public museum on the county’s history, and flexible space for county offices. On the second floor, the courtroom is the primary space, flanked by public restrooms on the West side and the judge’s chamber and jury room on the East side. Private spaces for maintenance and equipment storage were included on the third floor and in the basement.  On all three levels, the primary challenge was to restore the building in a historically accurate manner while incorporating all new building systems and technologies. Improvements included a fire sprinkler system, four computerized tower clocks with digital chimes in the cupola, a state of the art audio visual system, and acoustical improvements that were greatly needed due to the close proximity to the busy traffic circle surrounding the building.  With new acoustically glazed windows, acoustical fabric panels and wool carpet, occupants in the courtroom are no longer distracted by outdoor street noises.
Type of Construction: Coupled with the challenges associated with the new building systems, reconstruction of the interior structural system, utilizing steel in lieu of wood, was a complex design effort.  The forgiving nature of wood and its malleability in the field for unique shapes was not possible during the reconstruction, which required extensive detailing to maintain the historic pre-fire appearance of the building.  Whenever possible, original materials and appearance were either preserved or reused. The prominent redesigned cupola features an updated clock tower capped with a historically accurate, locally-made weather vane.  The tower is clad with wood and the trim is painted with the original green color, uncovered during pre-fire restoration efforts and through examining old photographs. The reintroduction of the contrasting green trim offers a strikingly different look than that seen in the building’s pre-fire condition and was part of the effort to restore the building to its original appearance.  Details of the building’s form are used throughout the building in items such as the cast bronze newel post caps that replicate the top of the clock tower and the octagonal mosaic tile floor that reflects the shape of the interior center of the first floor corridors. The courthouse contains a symphony of materials – some original, some salvaged, some inspired-by the original construction, and some brand new.  Upon entering the building from one of the four ground level entrances, a visitor is met with the brick paver floor framed by ornate oak woodwork and arched openings. The brick flooring leads to the center corridor crossing encrusted with a terrazzo Chatham County seal.  An elaborate oak staircase located at the west end of the building includes carpet runners and cast bronze newel posts. Mosaic tile covers the floors in the second floor lobby, toilet rooms, and small corridors that call attention to the shape of the first floor center. A millwork display of rails, wainscot, and window surrounds with louvered shutters was designed for the courtroom, which was directly influenced by the woodwork prior to the fire. While the exterior was restored to its original splendor, the interior was designed to respect the original space and provide modern updates. Locations where original wood walls once stood were replaced with new walls constructed with metal studs. The dramatic second floor ceiling and window heights in the courtroom were preserved and highlighted by deep wood window casings and a plank ceiling. The new benches in the court room used similar lines, proportions, and dimensions to that of the original benches.  Furthermore, the wood floors of the museum and judge’s bench/desktop were made with reclaimed heart pine floor joists that survived the fire, providing a symbolic link between old and new.  On the first floor the pre-fire building contained 4 layers of different flooring types that were stripped away during demolition to reveal an original brick floor. The bricks in the corridors are new but reminiscent of the original circulation paths.  Another feature that still adorns the building is the safe on the lower level that was built into one of the original fireplaces during an earlier renovation to secure important county documents.
Lessons Learned: Lessons in construction site fire safety and historic preservation efforts notwithstanding, the opportunity to be a part of this project and witness first hand the impact of one building on a community was remarkable and a lesson in itself.  As architects, we care deeply about the significance of the built environment and its impact on people, and we are often discouraged by what may appear to be a lack of similar care on a larger societal level.  This project, in part due to its dramatic inception, forced residents to consider what this building meant to them on multiple symbolic levels.  All buildings tell a story, and the story of this building since 1891 is particularly interesting and educational.  We often heard people say that they could not understand why they felt such a loss since no one was hurt in the fire, and why they felt as if they had lost a friend.  This is why flowers were placed on the construction fence.  The lesson is clear: architecture matters.
Project Economics: The construction budget on this project was $5M.  Due to the fire being a result of a construction related activity, the project cost was financed through the insurance policy of the initial contractor.  The negotiations between Chatham County and the insurance company regarding what would be covered by the insurance funds were intricate and required careful design decisions to stay within the available funds.
Process Details: This project began as an exterior renovation in 2010. Within weeks of the completion of the exterior work the building caught fire due to a construction related work item.  As part of the initial project, our office had produced extensive drawings of the exterior which became essential for accurately rebuilding the North portico with its ornate tower and cupola.  The first order of business post-fire was to perform a structural evaluation of the building to ensure the stability of the masonry walls that stood approximately 35′ tall.  Once found to be structurally sound, the real work related to stabilizing the building could begin.  The selective demolition, exterior wall stabilization, and temporary roof project encapsulated about a two month time period.  In this project, massive interior steel braces were installed on all four exterior walls to counteract lateral forces.  After the installation of these steel members and selective demolition, the interior of the building resembled an ancient ruin with an archeological dig underway.  Furthermore, a temporary trussed wooden roof was erected to protect the interior masonry from the elements and to dry the building from the immense amounts of water that resulted from firefighting efforts.  During and after the intermediate project, air was mechanically circulated throughout the building to augment the drying process.  The building remained in this state for approximately one year while the larger redesign effort took place.Once the design was complete and construction commenced, the construction administration portion of the project became paramount.  This is not atypical, but there was a need to be on site much more frequently than most projects of this size and scope.  The location of our office – less than a mile from the site – made these visits easy and efficient.  The contractor could call and we could be at the site usually within an hour or less, allowing details to be fully evaluated in real time with the actual field conditions, such as the original building being out of square.  This proved invaluable and became a secondary design process for many of the buildings most complicated details, from structural framing to interior wood trim.  Although extensive and exhaustive at times, these efforts were essential to ensure a successful project.  This also added to the sense of satisfaction when the project was recently listed by AIA North Carolina as one of the state’s most important buildings over the last 100 years (1913 to 2013).  Furthermore, the project earned the Carolinas AGC Pinnacle Award in 2013.  The public response to the completion of the reconstruction has been overwhelmingly positive, and Chatham County’s most important public meetings once again gather in this venerable old building that now has a new lease on life.
Photography: Courtesy of Chatham County Manager’s Office