Commission enters design phase of historic courthouse renovations

Commissioners announced a demolition phase at the historic courthouse was completed earlier this month. The Commission hired architectural firm, CMH Architects, on Sept. 30, to begin the design phase of renovations.

Lawrence commissioners eager to see reconstruction begin at the historic courthouse in downtown Moulton entered the designing phase of renovation after hiring CMH Architects for the project in a special meeting on Sept. 30. Commissioners announced last week that the demolition phase was complete inside the historic structure.

“We’ve got some momentum going on this courthouse, and we all want to keep it going,” District 4 Commissioner Bobby Burch said. 

He said commissioners intend for the former courthouse to be restored to accurately represent the 1930s era in which the building was originally constructed. Plans are to move Lawrence Commission offices, the county’s Industrial Development Board, Archives and Aging and Transportation Departments into the building when reconstruction is complete.

“We’ve got a good architect. We told him we wanted him to use his imagination and try to recapture as much as can be,” Burch said.

Billy Morace, an administrator with the Birmingham CMH architecture firm, plans to meet with commissioners and department heads later this month to begin designs for the first and second floors of the historic building. He said it could take at least six months for plans to be approved and for bids on construction to begin on the project. 

 Construction Manager Kelly Howard, with Martin & Cobey Construction Inc., estimated the project to take at least three years to complete once designs are finished. Howard oversaw construction of the Lawrence County Judicial and Administrative Center, which opened in 2013 on Market Street, and told commissioners the building took all of three years to construct.

“New construction is very different from what we’ll be handling here,” he said of the 1936 courthouse that is on the National Register of Historic Places. “We’re looking at two-and-a-half to three years before it’s finished if we were ready to begin now.”

Howard said a demolition project at the former courthouse was completed in late September. He said the building is now mold and asbestos free and everything commissioners requested be demolished on the interior has been torn out, including a lowered ceiling that now reveals historic aspects of the building the commission hopes to restore.

Howard estimated construction for the entire project to cost close to $6 million or $7 million, taking into account “volatile material costs” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Morace said that estimate could fluctuate greatly depending on what work the commission approves for the historic building. Of the total construction cost, CMH Architects will receive a percentage for designing and planning. Morace said the design fee is based on state bidding schedules.

“This is a big deal for us. We’ve been wanting to do this for so long, and I think we all have ideas of what we’d like to see done. I would love to have a facility that would be conducive to public events,” said Burch. “The architect is going to go to each office to get their ‘wish list.’ We’ve got to make sure the IDB is happy. They own a third of the building we’re in now.”

Commissioners said the current annex building on Alabama 157, which houses the commission offices and the IDB, will be sold to help pay for the renovation project.

IDB President Tabitha Pace said the board has agreed to move into the historic courthouse at no cost as long as the commission could provide space in the structure that is comparable to IDB office space at the annex. 

“It has potential,” Pace said while touring the old courthouse last week.

District 3 Commissioner Kyle Pankey said the county has found firm financial footing since the commission was able to refinance a bond issue on the new courthouse with lower interest rates. The historic courthouse was closed after the Lawrence County Administrative and Judicial Center was opened on Market Street in 2013. 

Commissioners have also cited an increase in online sales tax revenue, an increase in solid waste revenue, and careful budgeting have allowed the county revisit renovation discussions for the historic building. Burch said Lawrence County also received $6.4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. He said funds from the federal program can be used in renovation. 

“I am very happy that this building is being saved and being put to good public use,” Tim Littrell, a former district attorney for Lawrence County, said. “There is a lot of history in this building.”

Littrell retired from public office in 1996. He said he had moved into the historic courthouse in 1976 soon after general remodeling had taken place in the mid 70s and after former Circuit Judge Billy C. Burney had overseen remodeling of the second-floor courtroom even earlier. 

Circuit Clerk Sandra Ligon, who also recalled working in the historic courthouse beginning in 1979, echoed Littrell’s sentiments.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing and I’m so glad it’s coming to fruition,” she said of the renovations. “Every person I’ve talked to from the county—there have been so many fears (the building) would be destroyed. I’m thankful the vision is to keep it and restore. I hope it can be restored somewhat to its original design.”

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