Burned courthouse will rise anew

On a crisp, sunny morning earlier this month they gathered, donning hard hats and hefting shovels whose business ends had been spray-painted gold for a special moment. They plunged those shovels not into dirt, but ash.

Thus began the rebirth of the Hancock County Courthouse, nearly destroyed by a fire that began Aug. 11. It smoldered for two weeks after long-unused coal in the basement ignited. When the fire finally subsided, all that remained of the 19th century building were four walls. Everything else — furnishings, flooring, records, the soaring staircases, the bell tower — were lost. The flames melted its 800-pound brass bell.

The fire’s cause remains unknown.

On Jan. 5, a handful of public employees and elected officials stood near the courthouse’s smoke-stained steps and vowed that the building would rise again, better than before. It will take $6.6 million to rebuild, all covered by insurance.

For Helen G. "Sistie" Hudson, chair of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, the quick gathering was a moment for hope. If anyone loves the building more than she, that person hasn't stepped forward.

"It's just hard to talk about it being gone," Hudson said Tuesday from her desk at the county's temporary headquarters. Oconee Fall Line Technical College set aside space in a building for judges, commissioners and various department clerks to use until the rebuilt courthouse reopens in spring or summer 2016.

The courthouse’s resurrection has cast Hudson, 64, into a position she never anticipated. A former state legislator and Sparta mayor, Hudson these days is getting a crash course in historic rehabilitation and construction.”I’ve found out there are a lot of (building) codes to meet when you have nothing but walls standing,” she said.

But what walls they are. The courthouse, an ornate collection of arched windows and a gabled entry, topped by a bell tower, was built in an architectural style called Second Empire. Construction began in 1881, and lasted two years.

It was Hancock’s second courthouse — erected, according to local legend, after a newspaper ridiculed the earlier Hancock County Courthouse as the ugliest in the state. Building the new courthouse called for massive amounts of stone, augmented with long leaf pine cut from Georgia hillsides. The contractor, James Smith, constructed the front porch with brick fired in Augusta and emblazoned with that name — a permanent love note to his wife, Augusta.

It was the heart of the county, and pulsed with the business of life — who was born, who had died, who had bought property. In 1885, it was the focus of the nation after a wealthy Hancock planter, David Dickson, died and left his estate to his daughter, Amanda — whose mother had been a slave. Dickson's other descendants contested the will, but a jury upheld it.

The courthouse is situated in downtown Sparta, 100 miles east of Atlanta. It is the first thing travelers see when they head into town from the north.

"When you top that rise, bam! There it is," said Rick Joslyn, president of the Sparta Hancock County Historical Society. Like others, he gathered at a park opposite the courthouse and stared at the building while it still smoldered.

“People were intimately familiar with it,” he said. “We knew that building.”

Melanie Brassell, who works the counter at Webster’s Pharmacy in downtown Sparta, agreed. “It was always the center of downtown,” she said. “Everything started and ended there.”

It will be the center again, Hudson vowed. On a foggy morning, she visited the site. Crews are stabilizing what’s left of the building before rebuilding it. A handful of hardhat-wearing workers clambered about in the upper floor, silhouetted in shattered windows. In the basement, a couple more tossed bricks to a third worker, who loaded them in a container. The air echoed with the rattle of a jackhammer and the rumble of falling mortar.

Hudson stepped carefully in the parking lot. She grieved over the loss of a crape myrtle, destroyed by the heat. She worries about the magnolias that flank the corners of the front porch; like the building itself, they suffered in the fire, but show signs of life.

The first time she made a speech following the fire, to the Milledgeville Kiwanis Club, she could not finish her talk without weeping. Now, she can — but barely.

These days, she talks about the future. “When it opens,” Hudson said, “we’ll have a huge celebration.”