Point of View

Returning life to Chatham's icon

May 3, 2010 

— By now the news is old: the Chatham County Courthouse burned on March 25, 2010, at about 4:15 pm. You also know the good news: no injuries and no fatalities. For that, let us all be grateful. The fire alarm worked as it was intended, court personnel got out and fire crews fought admirably, without injury.

Years ago, the clerk's office, and all of the official court files, moved across the street. Computer files are backed up on offsite servers, so computer files were largely recovered. Almost all files in the probation office were recovered, and most of the possessions of the Chatham County Historical Society escaped significant damage. Even a good bit of the files in the district attorney's office, though on the most heavily damaged side of the courthouse, were recovered and have been shipped, frozen, to Texas, for further recovery efforts.

The offices of the Superior Court judges were destroyed. Though not the repository of any official records, there were many files and documents regarding court scheduling and other matters. With some difficulty, they can be re-created.

So what, then, is lost? What do we mourn?

The tangible items lost were personal mementos of court staff: family photos, diplomas, certificates, awards and important personal documents. In some cases, car keys, cell phones, purses, and clothing are gone. Fortunately, a good many of these items are fairly easily replaced; some are not. Gone, then, are some tangible reminders of family, friends, personal achievement, sacrifice or reward.

Also lost are countless untold hours spent recovering or re-creating files, time that otherwise would have been poured into tomorrow's cases is instead re-spent on yesterday's. Lost, too, are hours planning for and creating alternate court locations, alternate offices, alternate everything.

But what is lost, most significantly, is an icon. The Chatham County courthouse stood, proudly, in the middle of the traffic circle in downtown Pittsboro for 130 years. It welcomed visitors, signaled to vacationers and embraced those returning home. It is a state and local landmark ("after you go around the circle, just keep going..." "we knew once we hit the traffic circle, we were almost home").

For those of us who have lived in Chatham County, the courthouse has always been a source of pride, a reminder of the constancy of our community, despite the changing face of its inhabitants.

My 8-year-old son Jack, upon learning about the fire (and despite knowing I was safe) burst uncontrollably into tears. He and his brother Henry had accompanied me to the courthouse on many occasions on nights and weekends, as I dropped off orders, or picked up reading material. They had spent time there when not in school. So I imagine Jack felt a deep sense of place, of continuity, and of stability that the courthouse - daddy's office - would always be there. From the time he crawled until he finished kindergarten, we lived within a shout of that courthouse. A trip anywhere - in a car, on bike, by foot - was bookmarked by the courthouse. I think the courthouse, for him, was a visceral reminder of the constancy of life.

For the rest of us, that child-like sense of permanency and stability has surely been washed away with the passage of time. But still, we hold dear the tangible symbols of stability. And just as the fire consumed the courthouse, so too did it consume a part of each of us.

The Board of Commissioners has told us the courthouse will be rebuilt. We do not yet know the exact form, but the walls and foundation remain strong and relatively stable. We have the opportunity to shape that icon, and to create, or re-create, a building, a prominent public space.

We can plug the hole in our collective heart by designing a public space that continues to fill a need in Chatham County. Our central public space can serve a purpose, perhaps multi-purposes, for the next 130 years. I hope our rebuilt icon will remain a beacon and landmark for North Carolina travelers, continue to serve as grand hall of justice, but also, perhaps, act as Chatham County's own front porch, if not living room.

Allen Baddour is a Superior Court judge for Chatham and Orange counties.

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