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Courthouse work on schedule

For the people working on the renovation of the old Nansemond County Courthouse, stripping the building has been like peeling away the layers of history.

The courthouse, once where all the official business of Nansemond County was conducted, has burned twice — once at the hands of the British in 1779, and again in 1837 during the “Great Fire,” according to a Virginia tourism Web site.

“A lot of the things we’ve uncovered show that evidence,” said Gerry Jones, director of capital projects and buildings, during a Thursday tour of the building. He pointed to charred bricks and wood on the inside of the building, nearest Riddick’s Folly.

The courthouse is in the midst of an $855,000 renovation to become a visitor center and the headquarters of the Tourism Department. The building will feature a visitor’s lounge and gift shop, as well as office space and a conference room on the second floor.

“I like doing old remodels,” said Tony Russell of E.T. Gresham, the contractor. “My boss, Dick Gresham, he loves this kind of stuff.”

The old building, which has sat vacant for about 12 years, presented some challenges. The twin chimneys produced pounds of soot when they were cleaned out. Several bird carcasses turned up throughout the building. Reminders of the building’s former use, including desks and courtroom benches, had to be removed from the courthouse before work could begin.

The energy components of the building, including the heating, air conditioning and electrical systems, were funded by a federal stimulus grant that enabled the project to move forward. Only $755,000 was available for the project before the grant funding came in.

The original stairs in the front of the building will be torn out to make way for accessible restrooms. The visitor’s lounge, gift shop and reception desk will take up the middle portion of the first floor, and the stairs and elevator will be located at the back. A mezzanine floor is being constructed on the back of the building to house mechanical and electrical equipment.

“We didn’t want to eat up a lot of floor space in such a small building with mechanical rooms,” Jones said. “When you’re driving by this building, it looks big, but it’s small on the inside.”

On the second floor, offices for the Tourism Department will take up a majority of the space, along with a conference room on the wharf side of the building. Jones hopes the renovation will be complete by July 1, because the lease on the Prentis House, the current location of the Tourism Department, is up June 30.

“It’s going to be a good project,” Jones said.