Nearly five months after an early morning blaze gutted the historic Hancock County Courthouse, construction to rebuild it is set to begin Jan. 5.
“It’s finally coming together,” Hancock County Commission Chairwoman Sistie Hudson said.
The Second Empire style courthouse on Broad Street, affectionately called Her Majesty by locals, was built in 1883. That architectural style, meant to exude character and permanence, was rare in the South.
“Everybody’s very anxious to see Her Majesty go back up,” Hudson said.
The fire broke out Aug. 11, leaving just an exterior shell of charred brick standing in the center of a traffic circle in downtown Sparta. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
County offices in the courthouse were relocated temporarily to the Oconee Fall Line College site on Ga. 15.
Months later, Hudson said her heart still aches when she talks about the blaze.
“It’s been hard, but as soon as we see some (construction), I think I can put all that to rest,” she said. “I really didn’t dream, until after it burned, that so many people loved it.”
It will take about 15 months for the courthouse to rise from its ashes and be made into a more modern and up-to-code building by spring 2016, Hudson said.
While much of the building’s interior will change dramatically, the exterior and the ground floor will be re-created exactly as they were before the fire, county clerk Borderick Foster said.
“It will still have the same historical look,” Foster said of the ground floor. “It was like a grand hall, and it had two staircases on the left and right sides.”
The first floor will still have heart pine floors, but it will have an oak wood trim instead of a painted one. It will also be the site of the county commissioners’ office and the board of elections, Foster said.
The new courthouse will have about 6,000 more square feet of space than the old courthouse.
Foster said the increased space is largely due to changes to the large courtroom, which had a 25-foot ceiling and a balcony.
“The courtroom took up two floors,” Foster said. “They’re going to utilize all that open space by having a fully functional second and third floor.”
The second floor will house the Superior Court, court offices and storage space.
Four corner rooms used to make up the third floor, which will soon house Magistrate and Probate court offices.
The new courthouse will also have a functional basement.
“There will be an office down there for the sheriff and inmates so they can pull inmates from the (holding cells) to the second and third floors,” Foster said.
JW Spratlin and Sons Construction, based in Lincolnton, will handle the construction while Carter Watkins Associates Architects Inc., from the city of Monroe, will draw the blueprints and manage the construction site.
Joe Watkins, co-owner of the architectural firm, said the county’s insurance will pay the total cost of $6.6 million to rebuild the courthouse.
“The first step is going to be the stabilization of the existing brick walls, and then there’s going to be debris removal and excavation,” he said.
That will take about a month, “then they’ll start with the steel structure, which is going to take a little bit (longer),” Watkins said. The final steps will be interior construction and re-creating the double-tiered clock tower.
“It’s going to be much more energy efficient,” Watkins said.
Carter Watkins Associates has completed restoration work on 21 courthouses across the state.
And it has a connection to the Hancock County Courthouse.
“The weird part about it is we got our start at the Walton County Courthouse in Monroe, Georgia, when we first started our firm, and it’s identical to the Hancock County Courthouse,” Watkins said.
The Walton County Courthouse was gutted for renovations in the 1960s, Watkins said. Then, about 20 years ago, the firm was tasked with getting the courthouse back to the way it was before the renovation.
So employees traveled to Hancock County, where “the sister courthouse” was.
“We hand-documented everything (and) we hand-drew everything,” Watkins said. “We copied Sparta identically to put (the Walton County Courthouse) back together. ... Now we’re using Walton to restore Hancock, so we’re coming full circle.”
To contact writer Laura Corley, call 744-4382.