The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 8, 2013

Local historian says courthouse stairs walked by Judge Horton should remain

By Jean Cole
jean@athensnews-courier.com

— The president of the Limestone County Historical Commission wants courthouse renovators to reconsider removing one of two interior marble staircases.

Chris Paysinger told The News Courier Friday he believes the stairs hold too much of the county’s history to be removed.

Limestone County Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee and Brian Moore, the head of the company overseeing renovations to the courthouse, say the staircase on the east side of the courthouse interior must be removed in order to place a new elevator in the building.

“I really would like to see those stairs saved,” Paysinger said. “Many would argue that they should be removed just to expedite the process of the renovation. But those stairs carry the implications of our county’s history. The accumulated weight and meaning of time and history cannot be replaced, or torn out for an elevator. I think of Judge Horton, ducking down those stairs on his way home, after doing likely the most courageous thing anyone in our county has ever done when he overturned the jury ruling in the Scottsboro Boys case.”

That case involved nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women on a train, which a sheriff’s posse stopped at Paint Rock on March 25, 1931. They were convicted in trials in Scottsboro, and all but one was sentenced to death. They won new trials. One of the women recanted her story. Charges against five of the “Scottsboro Boys” were dropped; four were convicted. One of the men, Haywood Patterson, was tried by Limestone County Judge James Edwin Horton in a Decatur courtroom. The jury found Patterson guilty, but Horton threw out the verdict, which eventually cost him re-election.

Paysinger said the stairs “have been polished with the shoe-leather of our people, and once they are gone we will be the lesser for it.”

Not initial plan

Renovators initially planned to build a new elevator next to the current elevator so the old one could operate until the new one was finished. However, Moore, president of Martin & Cobey Construction of Athens, said the architects’ plan used the original courthouse drawings on which to base its renovation plan, and that plan incorrectly reflected the actual location of a wall where the current elevator stands. That means there was less area in which to work than expected. Thus, the old elevator would have to be dismantled before a new one could be installed in the same location.

This would prevent people with disabilities from using the courthouse for three or four months or it would force the county to move court services elsewhere temporarily, which Menefee said would be disruptive and expensive. Lack of an elevator would also mean prisoners would have to be walked up to the second and third-floor courtrooms, which might require additional security.

The only alternative, Moore said, is to begin building the new elevator elsewhere in the building while the old elevator is still operating. He believes the far staircase is not only the only place the new elevator can go without impinging on office space, it is also the most practical because there is already a hole through three floors for the staircase.

“Historic renovation is different than just building a soulless strip mall,” Paysinger said. “The implications of changing the dynamic and meaning of a historic building are dangerous. Limestone County arguably has a poor record in protecting our historic buildings. By removing a beautiful marble stairwell, it ultimately is killing the building by degrees. And when the implications of history are stripped away, what is really left? What will we become if we don’t value and save what we have historically? We will become a place of no heritage, no history, and no direction.

“Communities all around us would love to have our Square. You can feel something special there. Being from Limestone County we often take that for granted. Our leaders need to take a step back and weigh what is lost by removing those stairs just to make a renovation go faster. Judge Horton was brave enough to stand up for fairness and justice. My hope is that our elected leaders today can exhibit similar bravery and insight.”

Contractor understands

Moore, an Athens native who considers himself a student of both history and architecture, said he understand the historic value and meaning of the courthouse. He said Martin & Cobey has worked on several building projects requiring attention to historic preservation, including Athens State University as well as buildings in Athens, Mooresville and Huntsville. He believes removing one of the stairways — the one least used by the public — is the only way to keep the courthouse operating while renovations commence. He believes it is also the only way to refrain from encroaching on space sorely needed for judges and other courthouse employees.

A primary goal of the renovation is to create more usable space in the building as well as to repair leaks and make other repairs.