By Richard Sullins |

Lee County commissioners on Monday expressed their gratitude to emergency services workers and power crews for their work in protecting residents and vital infrastructure as the remnants of Hurricane Ian passed overhead last weekend. The storm’s impact was not as severe as it might have been.

But even as they paused to thank those who kept critical services running, the memory of a more destructive hurricane four years earlier came back into focus.

The commissioners selected a design firm from Pittsboro to draw up plans for repairs at the historic Lee County Courthouse made necessary by Hurricane Florence as it moved slowly through eastern North Carolina in mid-September 2018, dumping torrential amounts of rain that led to days of catastrophic flooding.

Hobbs Architects was the unanimous choice among four proposals submitted. Other plans were offered by firms in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Newport News, Virginia. Hobbs has broad experience with other North Carolina courthouse projects, including repairs and renovations to the Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro that was destroyed by fire in 2010.

The courthouse on Horner Boulevard was completed in 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt served as the 26th President of the United States. Its exterior is made of brick that was manufactured here in Lee County.

Tradition says its location was determined to be at the halfway point between the downtown portions of Sanford and Jonesboro because citizens of the county formed just a year earlier couldn’t agree on which community was more centrally located.

Santiago Giraldo, development services director for Lee County, told The Rant that in addition to addressing damages caused by the hurricane, other revitalization efforts are being made “to make the building more resilient, operational, and a strong asset to the county.”

As work on the restoration is done, great care will be taken to preserve the historic nature of the building as it is returned to a condition similar to that of 1908. For example, three existing storefront entry doors will be replaced by others that are specially replicated to match the original design of the early 1900s.

Giraldo said as refurbishing of the building takes place, “the historical fabric of the building will in no way be compromised as preservation is at the forefront of the project’s deliverables.”

“With the implementation of all the requested projects, the historic character will remain intact and will replicate the building’s historic time period and identity,” he continued.

Giraldo said two other issues will also be addressed. First, the roof on the old courthouse will be replaced, with existing roof assemblies removed, any damaged decking repaired, and replacement of all roof sectors with a 20-ounce copper standing seam roof. Repairs will also be made to the exterior masonry, including below-grade waterproofing and exterior perimeter damage.

Funds for the project were provided by the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019, which included $47.8 million in Historic Preservation Fund monies located within areas that received major disaster declarations from FEMA.

The HPF uses revenue from oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf to provide federal assistance dollars for preservation projects without using taxpayer funds. The Lee County Historic Courthouse was the second largest of the 18 projects funded, coming in at $873,479, with a local match of non-federal funds.

The two-story building is an example of the Neo-Classical Revival style that features Ionic order brick columns and a small dome on top of the roof. The building was designed by Louisville, Kentucky architect H.L. Lewman and was built by Falls City Construction Company.

Renovations to the interior of the building took two years to complete. The first floor now provides offices for the district attorney and the second floor remains in use as Courtroom Number 4. The courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and the new courthouse immediately behind the historic structure was completed and occupied in 1995.