PITTSBORO — The first Sunday in April wasn’t an unusual one in Pittsboro: the sun was shining, the town’s “First Sunday” event drew crowds to downtown and Chatham’s historic courthouse, as it has for so long, stood guard at the south end of Hillsboro Street.
Ten years ago this month, though, residents here were celebrating the completion of the rebuilding of that courthouse after the devastating March 25, 2010, fire that nearly destroyed it. And on Sunday, within the ground floor of the courthouse, the Chatham County Historical Association (CCHA) marked the occasion by hosting an educational program about the fire — and what it took to rebuild what many consider symbol of Chatham County.
The father-son architect duo Grimsley and Taylor Hobbs, of Pittsboro’s Hobbs Architects, were two of the people who facilitated the reconstruction of the courthouse; they were Sunday’s featured presenters.
“A part of this work is to document and preserve, and make efforts to protect and preserve existing buildings,” Grimsley Hobbs said. “This is a very important thing that this community did. It marks these buildings as having historic significance, and there’s still a lot more that we have to do.”
Around 4:30 p.m. on that early spring day in 2010, fire alarms rang throughout the courthouse, urging those inside to evacuate. The attic became engulfed in flames; people outside the courthouse could see smoke billowing out of its tower.
The courthouse was surrounded in scaffolding when the fire broke out because of ongoing restoration work. Taylor Hobbs said he and his father arrived at the scene as the blaze raged to assess the damage; Hobbs Architects was working on the restoration project at the time.
Firefighters stayed overnight to put out the fire, which was ruled accidental after the fire marshal’s investigation attributed to a worker who was using a soldering iron to repair gutters on the building’s exterior. The Hobbses eventually went to see what could be salvaged from the courthouse. Most of the stored documents, museum artifacts and court officials’ belongings were destroyed that fateful Thursday, but the main walls were deemed structurally sound by an engineer the Hobbses brought in to make an assessment.
“In general, the walls were in good shape,” Taylor Hobbs said. “These bearing walls on the first floor were in good shape. It was just wet.”
Some documents could be saved, but only certain people were allowed in the courthouse to retrieve belongings.
“Once some of the stuff was taken out, people did get bricks, charred wood and things like that, but there wasn’t a whole lot left,” he said.
From there, a task force was created to decide how to move forward with rebuilding the courthouse. Both Grimsley and Taylor sat on that committee; Taylor said there were several ideas of what the rebuilt courthouse might look like.
“So, the question was, does it get rebuilt as a historic courthouse or as a multi-use, community space?” Taylor said. “That task force … ultimately decided that it would be put back in his historic form. It can be used for court proceedings, but it’s a permanent home of the county commissioners, so that’s how the building has been used.”
The reconstruction process was a long and tumultuous one, according to the Hobbses. The original courthouse was built with wood, and the Hobbs duo was tasked with designing a rebuilt roof, courtroom, clock tower and attic using steel.
Grimsley Hobbs said one of the more challenging aspects of the project involved the columns at the front of the courthouse building.
“It appears to me that, in some way, they were made on site,” he said. “So they made them up and then floated the wet concrete, but we didn’t know how strong they were … You didn’t know where to start because they’re all different.”
Instead of supporting the clock tower with the columns, Grimsley said a decision was made to build a steel truss to support the tower, making the columns a decorative addition.
The courthouse project was completed and the courthouse re-opened on April 20, 2013. Although it has since been restored to its former glory, Taylor Hobbs said the community felt a sense of loss during the three years it took to rebuild the symbol of the community.
“In the front around the construction fence a lot of people put flowers out, even though no one died,” he said. “I think everybody felt like they had lost the most visible symbol of the town and county … it didn’t feel like the same place. I think everybody had a sense of loss and some people expressed that through the flowers.”
Taylor said what made the courthouse project unique for him was that the courthouse isn’t just a home built to be sold — it was an important establishment for his community.
“A lot of the time when you finish a project, you hand the keys to the owner and that is sort of the end, but we get to keep using this,” he said. “We have kind of a bond to this project … It was a long ordeal, and it was a big deal. It took a long time to figure out all the things to get us back here ... and there are days when it just sort of seemed like a dream. It wasn’t.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.