Last week a team of architects and construction engineers visited the fire-damaged Lancaster County Courthouse. It was the first time since the Aug. 4 fire that they had been able to extensively examine the 180-year-old National Historic Landmark.
Within a year, the Robert Mills-designed building can be “fully restored as the architectural jewel of Lancaster County.”
“It was a horrible fire, but basically it just burned the roof off, plus the interior of the courthouse,” said historic restoration architect Joseph Munnerlyn of Camden. “But the structure of the original building is almost entirely intact, and that's the genius of a Robert Mills-designed building – it's fireproof.”
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Mills, the first U.S.-trained architect, also designed the Washington Monument.
Wednesday, Munnerlyn, with his wife and architectural partner, Ginger, and structural engineer Harry Collins, walked through the gutted second-floor courtroom. Because of asbestos contamination from the collapsed roof, state officials had sealed the building until it could be contained and plaster from the walls removed. The couple's architectural firm, Boykin & Munnerlyn, has done two earlier restorations of the Lancaster County Courthouse, as well as a restoration of the Mills-designed courthouse in Camden.
The courthouse building has been stripped to the brick walls and swept clean to its bare wood floors. The fire-scarred pine timber rafters are still in place beneath a temporary plastic tarp roof.
The first floor only sustained water damage – the delicate pencil drawings by Civil War soldiers on the interior walls were undamaged. Although the downstairs has a damp, mildewed smell, amazingly, the upstairs no longer smells of the fire.
“A modern building would have been destroyed by this fire,” said Collins as he pointed to the notched timber rafters and thick floor beams. “And these brick walls … are as solid as when they were built. My sense is this courthouse can be properly restored so that visitors would not know there had even been a fire.”
Munnerlyn said he's been in contact with craftsmen who specialize in historic restoration in areas such as stone masonry, slate/tile roofs and heart-of-pine flooring. Specially made wood-tenon rafters have been ordered from Tennessee. And the sharply angled steps on the front porch – some steps are 9 inches high – are going to be replaced because several people have been injured. The stairway had been closed to the public even before the fire. The granite steps were installed during the 1853 restoration when the back wall was extended.
The courthouse was fully insured to cover replacement costs, and plans had already been made for a replacement courthouse – a referendum for a new courthouse is on the November ballot. The Lancaster County Council will make the final decision on how the restored courthouse will be used, possibly as a county museum or welcome center.
“A final decision has not been made, but the council has agreed it wants a historic restoration, as close to the original as we can make it,” said Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis. “There's no two ways about the fire, it was a tragedy, but the irony is that perhaps the building may end up in better shape than it's been a long time. And will be around for another couple hundred years.”
Munnerlyn estimated that the restoration could be completed within a year.
The building is historically significant because its designer, Robert Mills, is widely considered the first U.S.-trained and native architect.
Mills (1781-1855) was born in Charleston. President Andrew Jackson appointed Mills to design several Washington buildings, including the first U.S. Treasury Building and the U.S. Post Office Building.