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“Empty sky, empty sky, I woke up this morning to an empty sky...” The lyrics are from Bruce Springsteen’s “Empty Sky.”
While the sky above the Lancaster County Courthouse is not completely empty, there is a definite void in the roof of Lancaster’s most treasured heirloom.
But I couldn’t help but think of the Boss’s lyrics as I watched the flames shoot out of the 180-year-old historic structure designed by the famed architect Robert Mills. The same Robert Mills who designed the Lancaster County Jail and the Washington Monument. We published a photo of the Washington Monument surrounded by a fireworks display in our Aug. 1 edition. Aaron Morrison, our photographer, visited the nation’s capital during the Fourth of July and he wrote a column about his visit.
The irony is three days later an arsonist sets fire to our own Mills’ designed “jewel,” as local historian Linday Pettus coined it.
Pettus summed it up pretty much for most of us – Monday was a sad day. Spectators stood and stared in disbelief as the roof collapsed and sent slate shingles pounding to the ground. Conversations had to compete with the roar of firetrucks, water hoses and generators. The smell of smoke reached the hospital about a mile away.
Flames leapt around the “1828” inscribed on the wall just under the roof’s eave. The sun had already started its baking before 8 a.m. Fire equipment lay strewn in front of a reserved sign in the courthouse parking lot.
One woman, walking across the parking lot, was crying.
So was Mandy Powers Norell.
“When my secretary called and said the courthouse was on fire I started screaming,” Powers Norell said. “Mitch (her husband) said he thought someone had died.”
Truth is, it did feel like a death – the death of a family member. The courthouse is a family heirloom and it belonged to the citizens of Lancaster County. For almost 200 years we have passed it down from generation to generation. It was a part of our culture, our heritage. From the time we were children we learned its historical value. We toured it. We looked at the etchings on the walls supposedly drawn by prisoners. We listened to the many stories. Like the one about the witchcraft trial in 1813, where a young girl accused Barbara Powers of changing her into a horse.
The courthouse was a landmark. If you gave directions to downtown Lancaster you used the courthouse as a reference point.
There were previous attempts to destroy the courthouse. According to Pettus, in 1865, Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick, who was leading a detachment cavalry of Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union Army, threw turpentine balls on its roof. While some probate papers were burned, citizens rallied to save the building.
Even Mother Nature took a shot. The courthouse was the site of a square dance in 1886 when the effects of the famed Charleston earthquake shook the building. The quake frightened violin player Dick Hackett so much that he slammed the violin down, broke it and never played it again.
In 2006, someone threw a “Molotov cocktail” through a back window of the bottom floor, causing some minor damage.
While its historical value is priceless, the courthouse – though inadequate – represented our judicial system here. The arsonist’s torch may have delayed general sessions for one day, but it didn’t stop it. “Nothing can stop the court system,” said Jeff Hammond, clerk of court.
There was already an effort under way to build a new courthouse. And that effort will continue.
County leaders are also discussing if and how our heirloom can be rebuilt. More than 50 percent of the structure was destroyed. County Council recognized and praised firefighters, law enforcement and EMS for their effort in fighting the blaze. And rightly so. They are to be credited for their hard work.
Though shock and sadness were the initial reactions, now people are angry. Read their words elsewhere on these pages.
“Whoever did this, they’re in a world of trouble,” said Lancaster County Council Chairman Rudy Carter. “You have brought down the wrath of the law down upon you.”
Jo Willams, also known by folks as “Aunt Jo,” had some words for the arsonist, but we won’t repeat them here.
But Lancaster folks are resilient. And there is evidence to prove it. Two fires damaged our historic jail and Lancaster rebuilt it both times. Folks braved Sherman’s wrath to save the courthouse. And on Monday, folks fought just as hard to save it.
The building itself is a survivor. While this last attack may have inflicted a significant wound, there is a great chance for survival.
As our law enforcement, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and State Law Enforcement Division work to find the arsonist (or arsonists), we, as a county, have many issues to resolve – restoring the courthouse, finding a temporary place to hold court and building a new one. And just how do we do all this without placing even more burden on strapped taxpayers?
Our county leaders need our support as they sort through the process. It will take leadership, cooperation and determination to resolve these issues.
If not, then the arsonist is the
P.S. This column was written before the 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield’s office was damaged by a suspicious fire early Thursday morning.