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In the wee hours of Monday morning, someone slipped into a window of Lancaster County’s courthouse, crept upstairs and lit a flame. The arsonist ignited not only court documents, but 180 years of American history. It doesn’t really matter that the building was inadequate as a courthouse. The arson was a slap in the face to both justice and history.
According to local historian Lindsay Pettus, here are some of the reasons the courthouse was such a landmark:
- Fifteen years before the building was built in 1828, the land was used for what may have been America’s last witch trial. A young Lancaster girl accused Barbara Powers, an old Chesterfield County woman, of being a witch and changing her into a horse.
- The courthouse was designed by South Carolinian Robert Mills, America’s first native architect. Thomas Jefferson mentored Mills, who showed Jefferson’s Italian influence in the structure’s Palladian design. President Andrew Jackson made Mills a federal architect in 1836. Mills also designed the old Lancaster Jail, the U.S. Treasury Building, U.S. Patent Office and the Washington Monument, which was started in 1848, just 20 years after the Lancaster County Courthouse was built. Slaves built the courthouse with 300,000 bricks.
- In January 1861, 185 men, women and children huddled on the courthouse steps, where they were auctioned off like cattle.
- Four years later, a Union cavalry detachment from William T. Sherman’s army tried to burn the courthouse roof, but burned valuable probate papers instead.
- The building survived the Charleston earthquake in 1886.
- The courthouse was renovated in 1948, 1963, 1980-1982 and 1989.
- In 1978, the building was made a national historic landmark by the Department of the Interior.
And on Monday, the building that outlasted the tears of slaves, the fury of Union troops and the might of an earthquake was ravaged by one criminal.
Of course, the building could no longer accommodate Lancaster County’s court system. Before the fire, County Councilman Larry Honeycutt had called it, appropriately it now seems, “a firetrap.” Court administration has nagged Lancaster County Council for years about a new facility.
A commission estimates that replacing it will cost $33 million, and a referendum letting citizens decide whether to pay for the new building through a 1 percent sales tax is to appear on this November’s ballot.
Now Lancaster County needs to pay for a new building, house the court system temporarily and salvage what’s left of the historic building. The courthouse was no longer adequate for county use. It was on its way out as a courthouse. We all know that. But it is sad, very sad, that a courthouse should be destroyed in an act of injustice. We hope that the building can be restored as a museum.