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Restoration of Chatam Courthouse reveals previously hidden features

Photo: Restoration of Chatam Courthouse reveals previously hidden features (Melissa Key)
Grimsley Hobbs, Jr. of Hobbs Architecture stands proudly in the Chatham County Courthouse that his company is currently rebuilding after it burned in a catastrophic fire in March 2010. The courthouse is expected to be finished in December.

If walls could talk, the Chatham County Courthouse would tell stories — and as they restore the structure to its original masonry, builders have unmasked remnants of its history.

The 131-year-old courthouse, located at 158 West St. in Pittsboro, partly burned down in a March 2010 fire.

“When it burned down, it was like somebody ripped my heart out,” said Pittsboro commissioner Bett Wilson Foley, who grew up in town.

The courthouse is in the process of being rebuilt and restored, and excavation efforts by Hobbs Architects have revealed new information about the local legends surrounding the building’s past construction.

Workers found an arched brick opening filled with masonry that could have once been a tunnel opening.

Gene Brooks, former president of the Chatham County Historical Society, said the tunnel was probably built in the 1840s courthouse renovations.

He said the structure probably remained intact during the courthouse’s 1881 rebuild, but was eventually sealed over.

Brooks said the tunnel was most likely an escape route from the courtroom in case of a slave uprising, natural disaster or a fire during trial.

He said the county was likely prompted to build the tunnel because the previous courthouse was poorly built and the roof blew off during trial one day.

Brooks also recalled a courthouse in Richmond County collapsing around the same time with injury and loss of life, which could have further encouraged the county to take precautions when building the courthouse.

Brooks said he hopes to acquire the funding and technology to see inside the tunnel because he believes it may have also been used for storage and there may be old records inside.

Pittsboro attorney Wade Barber said he also has childhood memories of a balcony or raised seating in the courtroom when he would go with his father, who was also a lawyer.

Prior to the excavation, there was no proof suggesting such a balcony existed.

But as workers removed layers to return the courthouse to its original condition, they uncovered ghost lines left behind by what might have been a balcony or raised seating inside the courtroom.

Grimsley Hobbs Jr., an architect with Hobbs Architects, said they have also discovered two rooms that could have been vaults used as storage for important documents and a holding cell.

After the restoration process is complete, Hobbs said the exterior will be as close to its original state when it was first built as possible. Hobbs said the main corridor and courtroom will also mostly resemble its original form.

Other areas of the building will be modernized for functional office purposes, and a new historic exhibit and classroom will be added with funding from the Chatham County Historical Association.

Hobbs said that throughout the rebuilding process, he has learned less about the physical structure and more about how much people love the building.

“It’s exciting as an architect because you want people to have a tie to their buildings,” said Hobbs.

Hobbs said he remembers soon after the building fire, a chain-link fence was constructed around the courthouse and people put flowers around it as if someone had died.

Restorations for the courthouse are expected to be completed in December.

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Pittsboro native John Justice said he thinks the courthouse is an important symbol for the town.

“(I am) anxious to see it back to its former glory.”

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