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Union County studying cost of restoring historic 1886 courthouse

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    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
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    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
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    Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

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MONROE It’s been featured in movies and TV shows and has stood as a downtown landmark for more than a century.

And now, several local history and genealogy groups hope Union County’s 1886 Old County Courthouse can be turned into a museum.

But before the county would consider such a move, it needs to see if it makes financial sense to restore the historic building’s interior. So commissioners are spending up to $75,000 to study how much the restoration would cost, County Manager Cindy Coto said.

But she cautioned that it’s too soon to say what the plan is for its long-term use. It might take about 18 months before the county sees the results of the study.

Virginia Bjorlin, president of the Union County Historical Society, said she has been advocating for a county museum for 15 years. She said it’s important for natives and newcomers alike to learn about local history.

Other historical resources in the county include the Museum of the Waxhaws, the Marshville Museum and Cultural Center, and the Dickerson Genealogy and Local History Room of the main county library in Monroe.

Bjorlin said she believes it’s inevitable the old courthouse will be converted into a museum. But given the county’s challenging financial situation, she is unsure when that will happen.

“I think it’ll come to pass,” said the 83-year-old. “I just hope I live to see the day.”

The clock, cross and courtroom

The Victorian-style, brick courthouse, which remains closed to the public except by appointment, still holds hidden treasures.

They include a black metal vault door – with a painting of a woman at a river on it – where the recorder of deeds once stored documents. Across the hallway, a late-18th-century grandfather clock stands in one corner.

Elsewhere sits a 12-foot-tall aluminum cross that sported blue neon when it sat atop the courthouse from the early 1950s until 1979. A group of mothers who had lost sons in World War II led the drive for the cross, which was controversial in its time as a religious symbol on a government building.

It finally came down because it was causing water damage to the clock tower, Bjorlin said. A weather vane, reportedly the original one for the building, now sits atop the courthouse.

Upstairs is an expansive courtroom, complete with wooden seats, a vaulted ceiling and painted plastic molding.

Bjorlin said the courtroom evoked the county’s segregated past, when black residents were restricted to the balcony benches, similar to scenes from the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Many changes

The building has undergone many changes over the years, including additions in the early 20th century.

In 1986, the county capped a $1.4 million renovation project that included restoring the courtroom to the way it looked in 1926.

The last county function in the old courthouse, a tax office, ended in mid-2008. The 14,280-square-foot building now hosts a heritage room containing family histories, photographs and other documents.

The adjacent county government center opened in 1972. And court operations are based in the neighboring judicial complex, which opened in 2005.

The Old County Courthouse has been seen in a number of films and made-for-TV movies, including “Blood Done Sign My Name,” with Ricky Schroeder, “Scattered Dreams: The Kathryn Messenger Story” with Tyne Daley and Gerald McRaney, and a TV movie for the BBC. More recently, it has been featured in the Cinemax series “Banshee.”

A goal for the building

At a recent county commissioners meeting, Bjorlin said the Historical Society, the Carolinas Genealogical Society in Union County and the Union County Historic Preservation Commission would like to see the building used as a museum and heritage education center.

She suggested that commissioners eventually could choose one of several ways to run the museum, which would allow for grant submissions and capital campaigns: through a county agency, a museum authority or a private, nonprofit group.

Depending on the restoration costs, there might be an opportunity for private donations to help with improvements, if the county proceeds in that direction, Coto said.

“If the (restoration) cost is too high, it will be more of a challenge to do it as a museum,” she said. “The goal is to have a facility that everyone can appreciate.”

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell
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