More than a renovation

Published 11:20 pm Friday, November 19, 2010

Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson and his wife Cynthia, a member of the Economic Development Authority, look at items in the gift shop at the new Suffolk Visitor Center after a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday. Phil Ferguson prosecuted many cases in the building when it was the Nansemond County courthouse.

The building on the southeast corner of Main Street and Constance Road is now a place of hospitality. It wasn’t always that way, though.

The new Visitor Center, which was officially opened Friday with a ribbon cutting and tours for the public, will welcome guests to the city from all over. There, they can learn more about the history of Suffolk, find places to visit in the region, relax and have refreshments after long hours of travel.

Many in attendance, however, had different memories of the former Nansemond County Courthouse. At least six attorneys at the event remembered trying or defending cases there, ranging from speeding tickets to murder trials. Others recalled serving on juries or as witnesses. And no fewer than three sitting City Council members admitted to answering the judge on traffic offenses inside the historic building.


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“It’s good to be back here on a better occasion,” Councilman Robert Barclay said, recalling his first speeding ticket at age 16.

The current building was constructed in the 1840s after the second courthouse on the site was destroyed in Suffolk’s “Great Fire” on June 3, 1837. The first building there had been destroyed by fire during the Revolutionary War.

The courthouse reportedly was used as barracks for Union soldiers during the Civil War. It remained in use as a courthouse until 1998, when the Mills E. Godwin Courts Complex down the street opened.

Even after 12 years, attendees on Friday talked about their memories of the old courthouse as they entered the new visitor center.

“It brings back memories, but it didn’t look anything like this,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Phil Ferguson said as he walked in.

The repurposed building features display cases in the entryway to feature Suffolk history and the ecological system of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Also on the first floor, guests can get complimentary coffee from Sara Lee, relax in a visitor lounge, check the weather report, browse the gift shop and pick up brochures featuring a variety of attractions in Suffolk and throughout the state.

The first floor also features a welcome desk and employee workspace. Above, the second floor houses offices for the tourism department and economic development, as well as a conference room and employee break room.

Both those who remembered the building as a courthouse and those who had never been inside before marveled at the reuse of the building.

“Everybody I’ve talked to who’s seen it is proud of it,” said Councilman Jeffrey Gardy, an attorney who shared his memories of his own cases inside the building.

Lynette White, the tourism director, welcomed those in attendance to her new “home.”

“I thank you for the trust that you’ve given the staff,” she said, addressing City Council members and City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn. “This is a building of hospitality. We want [visitors] to stay here in Suffolk and leave a few extra coins.”