Plans for historic courthouse restoration pick up in Lawrence County

 The former Lawrence County Courthouse has been closed since 2013 when a new structure was opened less than a block away. The County Commission plans to renovate the property and move county offices from the Commission Annex on Alabama 157 into the historic building. 

The Lawrence County Commission is taking first steps towards restoring the historic courthouse on the Moulton Square.

In a regular meeting on Friday, commissioners voted to open the bidding process with Martin & Cobey Construction, the architectural consultant firm which oversaw the construction of the Lawrence County Judicial and Administrative Center, also located in downtown Moulton.

“I can’t tell you how many people have asked me about renovating the old courthouse since I came into office,” Commission Chair Kyle Pankey, who is two years into his first term, said. “This is something we’ve discussed at length numerous times, but financially, our hands were tied. Now that we’re more financially stable, we’re anxious to take this first step towards getting the courthouse renovated.”

Pankey said the county has found firm financial footing since recent audits produced zero findings, which allow commissioners the option to refinance the new courthouse with lower interest rates—a move he says will save Lawrence County about $2.5 million. 

The old courthouse has sat vacant since 2013, when the Judicial and Administrative Center opened that year on Market Street. District 4 Commissioner Bobby Burch reported that the commission never planned for the old courthouse to be abandoned when the new courthouse opened a block away. When International Paper announced the closure of its Courtland facility in September of 2013, taking 1,100 jobs with it, he said plans changed drastically. 

County Commission records show an initial renovation plan laid out by commissioners in January 2013 were estimated at $1 million. The plan included the renovation of the first two floors, restoration of a portion of the basement, and a blueprint for the second-floor courtroom to be converted for the county’s commission chambers.

At that time, Martin & Cobey consultants were asked to scale down the project by “getting it move-in ready,” which meant renovating only the first and second floors, according to a 2019 news report. The county had budgeted $600,000 to renovate both the interior and exterior with money that was left over from a 2009 bond series, which paid for construction of the new courthouse, records show.

The commission spent $367,942 on the exterior, according to Martin & Cobey’s Kelly Howard in early 2015. A “move-in” proposal estimated to cost $608,420 was presented to the commission in December of 2014, but the proposal was later put on hold due to budgetary constraints with Lawrence County’s general fund, the 2019 report said.

Renewed plans for the project will not happen overnight, Pankey stressed. He said the bidding process could take at least 60 days, and once bids are accepted, it will take at least 90 days to clean out the building and remove non-load-bearing walls. Pankey said the commission wants to begin with “a clean slate.”

Once renovations are underway, Pankey said the plan is to move county offices that are currently located in the Lawrence County Annex on Alabama 157 to the newly restored building. 

This would include the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board as well as commission offices. Pankey said commissioners plan to relocate the county’s Archives, which is currently housed in the historic Bank of Moulton on Main Street, and the historic courthouse will also include space for a coroner’s office. 

Once the offices and Archives are moved, Pankey said the commission will sell the former buildings. 

“We want to get all these offices into one building, which will also be more convenient for citizens. When all Lawrence County offices are in the same building or within a block of the new courthouse, they will only have one place to come to conduct their business,” Pankey said. “We will sell the Annex and the old bank. The county will save on utilities and upkeep in having fewer buildings to maintain.”

When restoration discussions began in 2019, IDB CEO Tabitha Pace said she will gladly move to the old courthouse site, though she said the move is not essential.

“We have a good location here on 157 where we are,” she said. “But I really don’t want to see the old courthouse go to waste. We’ll be OK at either place.”

When discussion for restoration began buzzing again in 2019, Dana Charles, the president of the Lawrence County History and Preservation Society, said his organization is eager to help with the plans. 

“We don’t want to see the building just go away,” he said. “Now that we know there are some plans in place, we’d like to be part of that. We’d like to help any way we can. From trying to help with finances, volunteer labor, any way we can work with them.”

He said the exterior of the building, which was constructed in 1936, is of white Limestone sourced from Russellville. 

Historical records show the county’s first courthouse—once located at what is now known as downtown Moulton—was a fenced-in log building that was erected in 1820. The courthouse burned sometime between February and April of 1859, and a new courthouse was built on the square and opened in 1860, according to records. The second courthouse was used as a hospital during the Civil War but was taken out of service in 1936 when the existing limestone structure was opened. 

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