Courthouse renovation plans turned sideways to allow for more space

Gary B. Gray • Mar 9, 2013 at 9:08 PM

Initial plans for the Washington County Courthouse’s makeover called for keeping the second-floor courtroom’s orientation as is, but the design literally has been turned sideways to fit into the same layout that was there when the courthouse was last renovated in 1986.

The plan’s clockwise turn means those observing the action will have their backs to Main Street and be facing the courthouse’s rear parking lot.

The historic courthouse is undergoing more than $250,000 in renovations, and recently work was under way on each floor. Inmates with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office Community Service Unit and a mix of county volunteers are working on what will be a completely renovated County Commission chambers, as well as other sections of the courthouse.

“The reason (Johnson City architect Fred Ward) decided to turn the design 90 degrees is because the original ceiling and structure is still there, and we felt that by doing this it will increase the amount of space for commissioners,” said Willie Shrewsbury, the county’s purchasing agent. “We will add a small conference room here on the west side where the first few rows of seating used to be, and there still will be two bathrooms on that end.”

The existing Jonesborough courthouse, which was built in 1913, is the structural ancestor of several wooden and brick buildings that preceded it, as well as the log cabin in which the first official meeting on the courthouse site was held in 1779 to serve the North Carolina settlements of Nolichucky and Watauga.

Most of the planned renovations are in the courthouse’s second-floor courtroom, which has served as the commission chambers. About a half-dozen new wooden benches will be installed for attendees and others, who, thanks to a new design, will be able to see the whites of commissioners’ eyes.

Prior to this change, the arrangement was haphazard. Some commissioners had been placed around a rectangular table, their backs to the audience. Others were pushed up into a viewing gallery, which seats a few department heads and members of the media.

Now, officials will enjoy new high-backed office chairs — a bit of a change from the old metal fold-outs. And speakers addressing commissioners will have a lectern at which they can place materials and speak into a microphone instead of being wedged between a wall and current seating.

Plans call for the 25 commissioners to sit in a “U” shape facing the audience from a raised position. In the middle of this formation, the commission chairman will take his seat. There also will be room below at a table, where the parliamentarian, county clerk and county attorney will sit in front of the commissioners.

“With the change, we had to move the county mayor’s (Dan Eldridge) office to the other side of the building,” Shrewsbury said. “County Attorney John Rambo already is situated in his office, which is on the periphery of commission chambers, and the mayor’s office will be just down the hall.”

The county plans to save money by using use inmate labor, and some have considerable skills to put to good use. Some of the materials and labor will be outsourced to the state, meaning the county will go through the state for furnishings, carpet, blinds and other materials.

“We will build the new commission table in-house, and we will likely hire someone to do the finish on it,” he said. “We’re shooting to move in for the April commission meeting.”

The second and third floors both will get new carpeting and vinyl cove bases, and the entire second floor will get a new HVAC system, acoustical ceilings, plumbing and electrical, blinds, and doors and frames. In addition to these changes, the courthouse’s exterior will undergo lead abatement and get a fresh coat of paint. The large front doors at the main entrance will be replaced, and a key card swipe to access the second floor at the stairwell will be installed.

Some departments and offices have or will switch places.

Shrewsbury will move to the courthouse’s ground floor. The accounting/bookkeeping human resource departments will move from the old office building to the second floor, where the Washington County Election Commission currently resides. Bobbye Webb, Accounts and Budgets Office director, will also move to this spot. The Election Commission will move to the third floor, once the aforementioned chamber and office construction is complete.

Meanwhile, work continues to move county records from tractor-trailers into the second and third floors of the former jail annex — an area now commonly known as “records.” Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn was doing her share by toting boxes and sweeping up.

“It’s going to be a blessing to have it all in one place,” she said.

County Archivist Ned Irwin will keep his office in the old county office building, where plans still are to turn the building into an historical preservation area where the public can visit and view items dating back some 230 years.

No funding has been identified for that project, Shrewsbury said.

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