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Courthouse undergoes restoration

CONSTRUCTION ZONE – The back door of the Copiah County Courthouse is being used as a construction entrance during the renovations, so visitors are asked to use the front doors until further notice.

Copiah County Circuit Court is conducting its proceedings in alternative facilities while the historic courthouse in Hazlehurst undergoes renovation.

Courtroom proceedings are being heard in the Hazlehurst municipal courtroom at 202 East Whitworth Street, said Circuit Court Administrator Sherry Moss Davis. The courtroom in the Chancery Complex  can also be used if needed.

Offices of Circuit Judge Lamar Pickard and District Attorney Alexander Martin have moved to 272 West Gallatin Street in Hazlehurst. The judge’s office move is temporary. The district attorney’s office will remain in the Gallatin Street location after the renovation.

Offices of the Copiah County Circuit Clerk, Tax Assessor, Tax Collector and Board of Supervisors remain open on the first floor of the Circuit Courthouse while work is underway on the second and third floors.

The renovation is expected to take six months. The work contract calls for the project to be finished by June 30, said Copiah County Chancery Clerk Steve Amos.

The interior of the second and third floors of the 105-year-old courthouse will be restored to their original appearance.

“We are putting it back like it was in 1902,” Amos said.

In the second floor courtroom, a skylight will be installed above a stained glass window in the ceiling so that sunlight will illuminate the courtroom. In the courtroom, layers of yellow paint were stripped away to reveal natural wood of 28 oak columns. Oak also emerged from beneath layers of brown paint on the stairway banisters. The rotunda will be restored so that a person standing on the first floor can look all the way up into the third floor.

New lighting and plumbing will be installed. A central heating and air-conditioning system will replace the noisy old system that sometimes made it difficult to hear proceedings in the courtroom. New acoustics for the courtroom will improve sound quality.

Circuit Judge Lamar Pickard said, “This renovation will increase the functionality of the courtroom….The renovations will increase not only the security and comfort of the facility, but also the efficiency. ”

“It was a wonderful facility for 1902,” Judge Pickard said. But the lights were dim. The high ceilings and loud heating and cooling system meant making a choice between being comfortable or being able to hear.

The project is expected to cost about $948,000. Two grants will pay for most of the work, Amos said. The Department of Archives and History awarded a $475,000 grant. A federal Save America’s Treasures grant will provide $221,000. Copiah County will pay $252,000.

Judge Pickard said, “This is another example of the commitment and support of our Copiah County officials to our justice system.”

County records hold a bit of the building’s history.  The Copiah County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 7, 1902, accepted a construction  bid of $44,603 from G.T. Hallas & Co., according to board minutes penned in the clear, flowing handwriting  of  Chancery Clerk J. B. Mayes. Construction on the courthouse at 100 Caldwell Drive was completed in 1903.

The Neo-Classical Revival structure  is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Amos, a local history enthusiast, spent nearly 10 years in search of funding for the renovation. He’s not finished. He plans to seek additional grant funding to restore the first floor.

Amos has  worked in county government for 28 years: 20 as chancery clerk and eight as tax assessor. Although his office is located in a different building, he is eager to see the historic courthouse returned to something close to its original appearance.

“I really feel good about it. I think the people of this county are going to be really proud of it,” Amos said.

Although three previous renovations altered the building’s appearance, Amos and one of the people working on the renovation  got a look at what the courthouse  used to look like on a visit to the Wilkinson County Courthouse in Woodville. Courthouses in Hazlehurst and Woodville were designed by the same architect and built by the same contractor. The first floor of the Wilkinson County Courthouse is unaltered.

“We were amazed,” Amos said.

Two wings were annexed to the Copiah County Courthouse in the early 1950s. The jail was torn down in 1981. The original structure had a third-floor dome and a clock. Leaks in the dome led to removal of the clock and dome in 1934.

The roof features will remain unchanged with the renovation underway now. Estimates for restoring the dome were approximately $500,000. “It’s just not worth it,” Amos said.

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