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‘All this can be repaired,’ official says during tour

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By Jenny Hartley

The Lancaster County Courthouse is a shadow of its former glory. The inside of the 180-year-old structure, which was heavily damaged by arson on Aug. 4, has been gutted – plaster scraped from the walls, partitions in offices removed.  The courtroom on the second floor is a shell. All the seating, jury box and the judge’s bench, original to the 1828 structure, are gone. The fire burned to the brick walls upstairs. Two large holes, apparently where the fire originated, mar the floor where the judge’s bench used to be. A green tarp flutters high above, where the fire burned through the slate roof. A crisscross of two-by-fours has been installed to hold up the heavy timbers supporting the roof. The acrid smell of fire is gone, replaced by the smell of mildew caused by tons of gallons of water used to put out the blaze. With its walls and floors stripped, darkened hallways and the dank smell, the courthouse, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark, looks and feels more like a dungeon than a hall of justice now. But officials have hope for the courthouse restoration.  Lancaster historian Lindsay Pettus led officials with the S.C. Department of Archives and History on a tour of the courthouse Monday morning. The department’s preservation office will help oversee renovations to the courthouse.  “They have to approve everything we do,” said Jody Munnerlyn, of Boykin & Munnerlyn, a Camden architectural firm that specializes in historic preservation and renovation projects. Munnerlyn was involved in renovations at the courthouse in 1982 and 1989. The courthouse was fully insured at $1.8 million, the replacement value of the building, County Administrator Steve Willis said. Repairs already begun Emergency repairs have already been done. They included asbestos removal over seven weeks and the installation of emergency roofing, Munnerlyn said. The plaster upstairs had to be removed because of asbestos fibers, Munnerlyn said. Heavy timbers for the roof, replicas of the original ones, have been ordered from a Tennessee company and should arrive next month. Munnerlyn said he expects they will be erected in January. The cornice work on the outside of the courthouse will be repaired and replaced. The courthouse needs a new heating and air system, and minor plumbing work. Air ducts will have to be disinfected, and the elevator repaired. Munnerlyn also has plans to replace the steps on the outside the building, which officials now believe were added during 1853, not built in 1828. Each stair rises 9 inches, compared with the standard 7 inches today, making the steps difficult to climb. Overall, engineers believe the outside structure is sound. “The structure of the building was left. The original part of the bottom floor is fireproof,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s basically just a big old clean-up. It’s going back pretty much to what it was.” However, a fire alarm and sprinkler system will be added. The building was equipped with neither when it was discovered burning about 5:30 a.m. Aug. 4. Munnerlyn said the courthouse will likely be restored with hardwood flooring and plaster walls, instead of the carpet and wood paneling from past renovations. John Sylvest, who reviews projects for state agencies, studied the holes in the floor where the fire started while touring the building. “I think it’s incredible it survived,” Sylvest said. “Very fortunate – all this can be repaired.”  Tour of history Pettus peppered his tour with stories about the history of the courthouse. He said when the 1828 building was built, it must have seemed magnificent for a town with one school, the Franklin Academy, and a couple of stores. “It’s magnificent today, I think,” Pettus said. Pettus told the group that $10,000 was appropriated by the state General Assembly to build the courthouse. It ran over budget by $3,050, which the General Assembly also appropriated to complete it. The courthouse was designed by Robert Mills, who drew the original plans for the Washington Monument. The last witchcraft trial in the United States was believed to been held at the courthouse, Pettus said. It involved Barbara Powers, who was accused of turning another woman into a horse. A larceny trial was also held there in 1831, with the man charged sentenced to being branded with an “L” on his thumb. The sentence was carried out, Pettus said.