Jury is out in the case of the courthouse

By Chris Damgen

No one I know has ever called Beaufort architecture boring or mundane. However, it can certainly be understood that visitors to our area often get overwhelmed with the T-floor plans, the two-story piazzas, and the differences between federal and neoclassical chimney designs.
It is interesting though whenever I take out-of-town visitors for a walk around the historic district that the one building that always draws measured interest is the very one that doesn’t fit the vernacular of our antebellum district. It is the federal courthouse building.
The courthouse has been sitting on the Bluff like a forgotten beauty on prom night for many decades. What was once an ornate county courthouse on the tight corner of North and Bay gave way to a beautiful and elegant Art Deco design of the WPA era, as was the popular architectural trend at the time. Although having sat quietly in recent years as court cases moved away, the building received a fresh coat of spectacularly white paint only last year and has certainly aged gracefully.
Now we hear that this building took the top honors in a list of courthouses across the country that are scheduled to be shuttered, leading to the inevitable discussion of what to do with this building.
Beaufort County (which has first dibs on the property) has already expressed interest in utilizing the building and is all but measuring drapes and imagining mundane cubicles scattered about the old court room. Dissatisfaction with the complex on Ribaut Road has even led some to suggest that County Council meetings ought to be held in this space.
All I can say is that I hope we can find a much better use for this property.
In the past few years, Beaufort has demonstrated an awesome ability at adaptive reuse of older properties. Take the corner properties at Carteret and Port Republic streets. What was once a furniture warehouse and bottling plant has become two the top restaurants in town. A rundown motor lodge from the 1950s became an upscale boutique hotel. A former post office and city hall has become a produce market and café.
There is no reason to believe that the federal courthouse could not be turned into the next Breakwater, Wren, City Loft or Lowcountry Produce.
Furthermore, the courthouse’s anchor position on the south end of Bladen Street can serve as a catalyst for future mixed-use development on that corridor. The City of Beaufort has already completed a streetscaping project on the northern blocks of Bladen Street and will be completing the second phase of this project on the south end this year. Nearby MidTown Square will be adding close to 20 newly constructed homes less than two blocks from the courthouse. Individual renovations of properties across the Northwest Quadrant continue to bring improvements to the area.
Think of the possibilities for what can be achieved for that building. Converted loft apartments. A community theater space (motion pictures or stage). A microbrewery. Senior assisted living. USCB dormitories. These are just some of the suggestions that I have heard from my friends when discussing the situation on Facebook the other day.  Any of the above uses would go a long way to helping the Bladen Street area develop into a true “midtown” mixed use district.
There are many other possibilities out there. One thing though is for sure:  the highest and best use for a building of such prominence and beauty should not be limited to government uses for only five days a week. Consider as well that there are several government owned buildings within a mile’s distance of the courthouse that are sitting empty or at half capacity. Before investing in converting the building for county use, perhaps the county could actually sell the land and make some money to pay for improvements to its existing buildings.
While the verdict may be inevitable on the immediate future use of the building, let it not be said that there was alternative testimony in the case of the courthouse’s future. Before we rest this case, let us consider all available possibilities so we can have an outcome worthy of the building itself.
Chris Damgen lives in Beaufort and is a city planner in South Carolina.

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