published Monday, May 13th, 2013

Old Coffee County Courthouse in line for repairs, updates

Coffee County maintenance director Robert Gilliam, foreground, says he believes he has enough funds remaining in his budget to do repairs for water damage from window air conditioners at the 1871-era Coffee County Courthouse. Maintenance workers Ben Mata and Rick Soucy, on steps from left, head out for materials and equipment.
Coffee County maintenance director Robert Gilliam, foreground, says he believes he has enough funds remaining in his budget to do repairs for water damage from window air conditioners at the 1871-era Coffee County Courthouse. Maintenance workers Ben Mata and Rick Soucy, on steps from left, head out for materials and equipment.
Photo by Ben Benton.
  • photo
    This window air conditioner in a front office of the old Coffee County Courthouse has damaged the window sill and underlying structure.
    Photo by Ben Benton.
    enlarge photo

MANCHESTER, Tenn. — At just 141 years old, the Coffee County Courthouse is in pretty good shape for its age.

But there are places it shows its years: flaking paint on the wooden windows and the dentil molding around the eaves, some water damage where an old window air conditioner's weeping condensation has rotted away the sill and underlying wood.

County officials and the Coffee County Historical Society want to jump on repairs and start looking to possible updates to make the old structure last until the next century, county maintenance director Robert Gilliam said Thursday.

The whole building needs updating, but one first-floor window at the front of the building needs immediate repair, Gilliam said.

Gilliam and County Mayor David Pennington said the county has continued to maintain the building though there have been no major recent renovations. The building has a new roof, and the cupola has had recent work, but the building otherwise stands much as it has for decades.

"The first courthouse was built in 1837," Pennington said. That building cost about $10,000.

Pennington said the first courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1870, and local officials immediately launched a project to build a replacement on the same site.

According to a 1936 county history by Leighton Ewell, the replacement building cost about $20,000 and was said to have been financed by Col. Stewart Strickler, who lived in Hillsboro, Tenn.

The courthouse was remodeled in 1909 and repaired in 1932 under then-Sheriff C.D. Huffman. At that time, the courthouse held court sessions and served as a place for public speakers and entertainment, Ewell wrote.

The same building today houses Coffee County Circuit Court, a Tennessee Highway Patrol Criminal Investigation Division office, the Coffee County Historical Society and a University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension law enforcement office.

Circuit Court Judge Vanessa Jackson contends the old building is fine for court, but "it is in need of some tender loving care," noting she'd like to see it remain "vital" as a location for public offices.

"This is a treasure," Jackson said. "It could be magnificent. There's a lot of community interest in trying to raise some funds for it."

Historical society office manager Joanna Lewis said group members are brainstorming ideas to raise money for a much-needed central heat and air system for the first floor to get rid of the window air conditioners.

The next goal is to expand the upstairs central heat and air system to all rooms, she said.

There's general agreement that the building is worth preserving, but updates aren't cheap.

"We've got to find some way or other to get our central heat and air unit installed downstairs," Lewis said.

The longer-term goal is to restore the original walls, floors and ceilings.

"It'll take time and some generous donations by people who are interested in preserving old buildings," Lewis said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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