Lancaster Mayor Joe Shaw summed it up best last week when he looked out from the lobby of his hotel toward the charred ruins of the Lancaster Courthouse and said: “It's been a rough week.”
In 25 years of reporting I've covered a lot of fires, many where people have died, but I've never covered a fire story like the one that took place in Lancaster last week – from heartbreak to hope to fear.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Monday, there was the initial shock and sadness at the loss of 180-year-old courthouse which was literally at the heart of the community at Dunlap and Main streets. As dozens of people told me this past week, anyone who grew up in Lancaster has been in that venerable old building many times – climbing those steep, granite steps – either as school children on tour or for jury duty as adults .
“Our courthouse kind of embodies the soul of Lancaster, it's always been a constant despite all the change around it,” said Lancaster attorney Mandy Powers Norrell, whose offices are across the street.
She has argued many cases in the Robert Mills-designed National Historic Landmark.
“These fires have hurt all of us and that sense of security we felt about our town,” she said. “Life has changed here this week.”
On Tuesday, there was almost a sense of relief, when preliminary reports indicated that despite massive damage to the second floor courtroom and the loss of the slate/tile roof, it appeared the building could be rebuilt. Except for relatively minor water damage, the first floor offices were remarkably unscathed. Even the delicately pencil-etched drawings on the walls by Civil War soldiers were not harmed.
Lancaster County Council chair Rudy Carter says that pending a structural engineer's report, the general plan is to rebuild the courthouse, most likely as a museum. A referendum for a new courthouse was already on the November ballot. County officials are making plans to erect a temporary roof with scaffolding and tarps for the old courthouse.
Just when things seemed to be settling down, another fire broke out in the early morning hours on Thursday – this time across the street from the courthouse. It was the solicitor's office, just 75 feet away.
“Most of us just figured the courthouse was an isolated, random thing but then with this second fire, it really got people's attention,” said Hazel Knight, owner of the Shoe Peddler, less than a block from the courthouse. “With these buildings being targeted, you'd have to think someone has a bad grudge against our justice system. People are worried about what the arsonist is going to hit next.”
I sat down with several city officials last week – Lancaster County Manager Steve Willis, Emergency Services/Fire Director Morris Russell and his deputy director Darren Player. It was an illuminating meeting because it gave me insight into the people of Lancaster and their resilience – both personally and two of the city's oldest buildings.
The buildings – the courthouse and the 1824 jail – had both been damaged by several fires over the past 184 years but are still standing. We were meeting in the old jail, which now houses the county's emergency services offices. This is the command center during a disaster – it still has the bars on the windows.
Both buildings were designed by Robert Mills – the architect of the Washington Monument. Mills was one of the first architects to incorporate “fire proofing” designs into buildings. The jail has an interior downstairs wall that is more than two feet thick. The men, who had all grown up in Lancaster, joked that if there was one building in town that could sustain a blast from a tank's cannon, it was this one.
Russell talked about how he had walked into the second-floor courthouse on Monday and took a look around – at the heavy timber rafters, the brick and stone walls.
“Everybody had always talked about how tough that old building was, how solidly built it was. Heck, even the most of the windows are still there, in a new building, the windows are usually the first things to blow,” he said, pointing to the fortress like walls of the former jail. “The two buildings are differently designed but they're both built incredibly strong, no one builds buildings like this anymore.”
He added: “And I'm proud of the courthouse and the jail, these buildings are as tough as everyone says they are. I've seen them survive what would have destroyed other buildings. And that's why that 180 years later, they're still here.”
As I walked out of the old jail, I thought about how Russell's comments about these buildings could just as easily apply to the people of Lancaster.