Historic renovation nearly complete

Another historic renovation project is complete at the Copiah County Courthouse – not the first in its long history, reports Chancery Clerk Steve Amos.

This week contractors are finishing up the installation of the sound system and other final details. New furniture will be delivered in the next day or two, and then the Circuit Court staff will begin moving into their new quarters.

Some of the results of the renovation are already visible to the public. The rotunda has been opened up again, the way the courthouse was originally designed, drastically changing the view from the ground floor. The public can tour the rest of the renovations following the dedication ceremony on Tuesday, October 28, at 10 a.m.

This renovation restores the second and third floors of the 106-year-old courthouse closer to its original condition – and undoes some of the work of  earlier renovations. In addition to the rotunda view, the paint has been stripped away to reveal the original woodwork in the courtroom, which was painted during the renovations in the 1970’s.

Those 1970’s renovations were done by contractor Huntington Lumber & Supply Company of Hazlehurst – the same firm doing the 2008 renovations. That prior renovation mainly made cosmetic changes to the courthouse, advised Amos, who has served as grant administrator on the current project. But major structural changes were made to the courthouse in the 1950’s when the two wings were added and the back of the courthouse was extended. Other major changes were made during the 1930’s, including the removal of the dome and clock which graced the roof of the original structure.

The ground floor once had its own courtroom or auditorium where the board of supervisors met, Amos reports, although most signs of the previous layout are gone now. Curved walls can still be seen in the tax collector and tax assessor’s offices, giving an indication of the former shape of the auditorium. But the main part of the auditorium is now the hall between the tax offices where citizens can usually be found lining up to buy car tags.

“When you came in [from the rotunda], you stepped down into the auditorium,” Amos said.

The layout was changed in the 1930’s. The board  minutes of October 1933 indicate courthouse repairs were badly needed, and it was around this time that the original dome was removed. Minutes from the supervisors meetings and newspaper accounts from 1934 show several instances when supervisors authorized repairs and “renovations,” although the details are not always spelled out. Amos believes the rotunda was covered during these 1930’s renovations.

Copiah County’s twin, the Wilkinson County courthouse in Woodville, still sports a dome and other historical elements as the courthouses were originally designed.

Some of the changes are still evident on the exterior of the Copiah courthouse. Brick of a slightly different color can be seen on the north side (now the tax collector’s office) where there was once an entrance to the ground floor auditorium. There was also an entrance on the south side of the courthouse, Amos reports. The original steps to the north entrance can still be seen beneath the wheelchair ramp. The original structure of the courthouse can be distinguished by the slight change in brick as well as architectural details, including a change in window style.

HISTORICAL ACCOUNTS

The December 27, 1934, edition of the Hazlehurst Courier reads: “The auditorium used by the board of supervisors will have interior changes including new desks, partitions, book cases, and storage facilities for the accumulated tax records.”

The board meeting report goes on to say, “The room now used by the county assessor will serve as a consulting room, the assessor will divide occupancy of the old sheriff’s office with the board, the later being in session only a few days a month. The change is made to take care of the recent trend in times to buy car tags and pay taxes at the last moment, requiring larger quarters to take care of the crowds, the present rooms being far too small. No alterations are contemplated in the basement which suffered from the recent fire.”

Amos said this report was the only sign he has heard of there ever being a fire in the courthouse. The same board meeting authorized repairs to woodwork “recently destroyed by fire in the courthouse as well as the alterations in the sheriff’s office,” but apparently the fire was not devastating as Copiah County’s records have never suffered the catastrophic losses due to fire as many other counties have suffered.

CHANGING OCCUPANTS

With renovations and changes in layout also comes the shuffling of personnel. The District Attorney’s office had to relocate following the current renovation project, but that is certainly not the first time personnel have been moved around in the past century. The occupants of the courthouse have changed several times over the years.

The courthouse used to house the sheriff’s department and superintendent of education – both of whom relocated relatively recently, with the sheriff moving to the new detention center in Gallman in 1979, and the supertindent of education acquiring new office space in the 1980’s. In the early years the sheriff also served as county tax collector. The Chancery Court clerk and staff moved out of the courthouse in 2000.

Before the Gallman detention center was built, the county jail was located behind the courthouse in what is now the parking lot. The jail was removed in about 1980 or 1981.

“The jail was about 15 steps out the back of the courthouse,” Amos said. Conditions were primitive by modern standards. “The cells were upstairs. It was like a two story dungeon.”

The courthouse currently houses the Circuit Court administration and clerk, the county administration, tax assessor, and tax collector.

PAST COURTHOUSES

Hazlehurst became the county seat in 1872-73. The original courthouse was a wooden structure located in front of the current courthouse where the grassy “island” is now, in the middle of Highway 51.

Amos wishes someone could turn up a photo of the original Hazlehurst courthouse and the courthouse in the former county seat of Gallatin. Gallatin served as county seat from 1824 to 1872.

Before that the county seat was briefly located at Coor Springs. An old house served as courthouse there in the earliest days of Copiah County, Amos believes.

GRANTS MAKE RENOVATIONS POSSIBLE

Grant administrator Amos worked on securing the funding for this project for several years before the grant applications were successful. Funds were being sought even before the courthouse centennial was celebrated in 2002.

The recently completed renovation project was made possible by large grants from the Department of the Interior’s Save America’s Treasures program as well as the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The county board of supervisors covered the rest of the expense. About 75 percent of the cost was covered by the grants, Amos reported.

So now that the second and third floors are renovated, can we expect the ground floor to be the next project? Amos doesn’t think it likely any time soon.

“We would have to close the entire courthouse to do the ground floor,” he said.

Right now there is nowhere for the offices to move during construction, even if grant funds could be secured to fund a renovation.

Leave a Comment