FINCASTLE – The Botetourt County Courthouse has not moved in a couple hundred years, but it has seen its share or renovation and additions.
Designed by none other than Thomas Jefferson, it was remodeled, burned to the ground, rebuilt, and now slated for another round of remodeling and additions. Despite the many changes to come, one thing remains a constant – the classic, massive columns.
County officials said the new courthouse will not have a cookie cutter design, but will retain its Neoclassical architecture on the outside. It’s the inside that needs an update.
The last time the courthouse was renovated was 45 years ago. Since then, said Assistant County Administrator David Moorman, technology, security, accessibility and environmental issues require the edifice to be updated.
Those issues range from water and mildew to roofing and foundation. Additionally, he said, the mechanical systems are beyond their life span and don’t work. And then there is the plumbing system, he explained, before turning to security issues.
“Security is a major concern,” Moorman said, “Over the years courthouse security has seen major changes.”
To solve the myriad of issues, the county decided to hire Architectural Partners of Lynchburg to redesign a courthouse that will meet the environmental and security needs of the building. The firm, explained Supervisor Stephen Clinton, is known for designing a courthouse with security in mind.
Since 1975, the last time the courthouse was redesigned and rebuilt from a fire, courtroom security has undergone many changes. The new courthouse should have state-of-the-art security to ensure employees and the public safety, the county officials said.
The supervisors will see architectural conceptual drawings of the new courthouse at their March 23, 2021 meeting. The cost of the project is to be determined depending on the plans, said Clinton.
Clinton explained that the final design has not yet been authorized by the county and will not be until after supervisors review and accept the concept design. Then the final design contract needs to be agreed upon and the final design completed. “That will take at least a year, maybe even 15 months. Then the construction contract needs to be advertised and bids accepted. By the time all is said and done, construction is unlikely to begin any sooner that the summer of 2022, and will probably stretch into 2024,” he said.
The new courthouse will include a number of offices currently spread around the county and Fincastle, including the Commonwealth Attorney’s, Voter Registrar, Circuit Court, and Clerk of Court. There could also be space for the county’s museum, said Clinton, who added more off-street parking is on the county’s want list.
The goal would be to reduce street parking by providing new parking on the courthouse site. The new parking could be surface parking or structured parking, Clinton said.
Clinton added that, as part of their work, Architectural Partners will be able to assist the county in selecting a new site for the Confederate obelisk in front of the current courthouse.
Botetourt County’s first courthouse was a log cabin built before the American Revolution, in 1770. Botetourt 250th Anniversary material described the courthouse as “24 feet long and 20 feet wide, with a clapboard roof and sheds, one at either end, for jury rooms. A log cabin was also constructed to use as a jail.”
In the courtyard stood stocks and a dunking pool, reserved mainly for women who were strapped to the chair and dunked into a body of water.
By 1818, the county needed another courthouse, one more grand than a log cabin. The new courthouse was constructed with a domed center and chimneys on the west and east ends. Documents show Thomas Jefferson wrote about designing the structure.
Thirty years later, the county built a new courthouse, which used the same design, the Botetourt 250th Anniversary reads. “At the time, the courthouse was in the center of the building with the treasurer’s office on the left and the circuit court clerk’s on the right as one faces the building.”
In December 1970, a fire raged through the building. The Dec. 17, 1970 issue of The Fincastle Herald main headline reads, “Roaring Fire Ravages Historic Botetourt County Court House.”
“Firemen at first believed the flames originated in the bell tower, since the fire was first visible there. It had started, though, in the basement and had been drawn upwards with the open stairwell to the second-floor courtroom acting as a giant chimney,” the paper reported. Two men, Dwight Fix and Wayne Niday, were on their way home from Salem Frame Co. when they saw the flames and reported it.
The fire was so strong, firemen wearing smoke masks were driven back. “Before the night was over a total of 28 fire engines and more than 100 firemen from 12 communities responded to the alarm,” the newspaper reported.
It took nearly five years to rebuild the structure after the fire, which left only the massive columns standing. In June 1975, The Fincastle Herald reported the new courthouse contains three upper floors, a basement, automatic elevator, air conditioning, a larger clerk’s office and additional room in the back of the building.
“The main courtroom has been turned around – returned to the original Jeffersonian design,” the paper reads.
At the courthouse dedication, then-Gov. Mills E. Goodwin delivered a dedication to more than 500 people who attended. “The courthouse was draped in red, white and blue bunting, the speakers addressed the crowd from a special stand constructed from the courthouse portico extending into the lawn,” the June 19, 1974 issue read.
Clinton said that it’s the county’s hope that when the new courthouse is built, the structure will be a renewal for business in Fincastle.