Old courthouse to take on new life

Published 10:47 pm Monday, March 23, 2009

Younger Suffolk residents and newcomers to the city probably wonder about the building on the corner of East Constance Road and North Main Street.

Its distinguished columns and commanding presence likely betray its former use as the courthouse, even before one reads the word above the front door. The American flag, still raised faithfully every morning, flaps in the springtime breeze outside.

Inside, the 1860s building is in minor disrepair. On the ground floor, its next-door neighbor, the Riddick’s Folly museum, warehouses some of its materials. Last week, the space was packed with items for auction at the museum’s benefit ball on Saturday night.

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Up the steel staircase (there is no elevator), there is a large carpeted room that was once a courtroom. A desk sits in one corner, and a single wooden bench, covered with dust, in the opposite corner. Portions of wall have been broken away where contractors were trying to pinpoint the exact location of the former fireplaces, now bricked over.

The more modern, two-story addition that was built on the back of the building in 1956 was torn down in 2004, said Gerry Jones, the director of capital program management for Suffolk. That addition provided the modern support system – heating and cooling, plumbing, bathrooms, and an elevator – for the older courthouse, which now lacks all those features.

The 4,000-square-foot original building has seen its share of disaster. Hurricane Isabel broke windows and tore the roof off “like a tuna can,” Jones said.

The remodeling of the building to become the new visitor center and economic development headquarters has been a long time coming. City Council delayed the project a few years ago to put more resources behind the recently completed East Suffolk Recreation Center.

However, the project is finally getting off the ground. The city began advertising for bids for the project two weeks ago. The city hopes to get the project, estimated at $1.2 million, done at a steal, considering that contractors are hungry for work.

“We’re anticipating some very competitive bids,” Jones said.

The project will not change the historical appearance of the building’s exterior much, Jones said, except for the back wall.

“We’re going to bring the backside back to life,” Jones said.

On the back wall, the contractor will construct a mezzanine floor, in between the first and second floors, to house rooms with mechanical supplies, such as the elevator workroom and the fire-sprinkler room.

The inside of the building, however, will change dramatically, Jones said.

When the building is finished, people entering the front door will find themselves in the midst of a Great Dismal Swamp Gallery and a Suffolk History Gallery. Restrooms (a modern convenience not thought of in the 1800s) will be installed near the entrance.

Further back on the first floor, visitors will discover the visitor center, with a reception desk, visitors’ lounge, gift shop and information kiosks, offering brochures on attractions in Suffolk and neighboring towns.

On the back wall on the first floor will be a workroom for storing supplies and an elevator.

On the second floor will be support offices for tourism and economic development, staff restrooms and a conference room. The building’s old fireplaces will be refurbished so that they can become design elements in the rooms, but they will not be operational.

Jones said several contractors already have picked up the blueprints for the job.

“There’s lots of interest,” he said. “It’s going to be an attractive space.