“The courthouse is on fire!” Many local folks know where they were on the afternoon of March 25, 2010. That was the day the iconic, historic 1881 Chatham County Courthouse on the circle in Pittsboro was almost lost to a fire.
Fortunately, local documentary filmmaker Mike O’Connell, of Haw River Films was ready with his gear to capture on film footage from that afternoon and evening, and listen in over the following months as others recalled the history of the courthouse and what it would take to rebuild it. The documentary features architects Taylor Hobbs and Grimsley Hobbs, Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour, attorney Wade Barber; educator Ellen Bland, and the novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Allan Gurganus.
The local premiere of the new documentary film “The Courthouse” by filmmaker Mike O’Connell will take place Friday, March 24th and Saturday, March 25th at 7p.m. as part of a double feature with the classic courtroom drama “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The event is a benefit for the Pittsboro Youth Theater/Center for the Arts Pittsboro and commemorates the seventh anniversary of the Pittsboro Courthouse fire.
After the fire, Taylor Hobbs, AIA, co-chaired the Courthouse Task Force, and, with his father, Grimsley Hobbs, and the rest of the Hobbs Architects, P.A. team helped bring the Courthouse back to life.
After the initial shock of the loss of this deeply resonant public building, much was found to be sound. The architects then looked into the ruins and said, “Well, look at it this way: the foundation is in and walls are up.” Their here’s-where-we-are-now-where-do-we-go-from-here approach matched that of the local government and community leaders who were immediately committed to bringing the courthouse back. “The only question was,” Hobbs says, “what does it come back as?”
In much of their work Hobbs Architects celebrate the old alongside the new; they view renovation as the ultimate form of recycling/reusing. The courthouse has returned looking as splendid as it did the day it was built and while original materials have been used wherever possible and the original appearance has been lovingly preserved, it stands now as a modernized masonry and steel building that serves as both courthouse and museum.
The day of the fire in March 2010 there was no loss of life; no one got hurt and there was great relief at that. “But,” Hobbs says, “the next day the construction fence was covered with flowers. People had placed flowers there for the architecture. They were surprised that architecture could make them feel such loss.” The building had stood for nearly one hundred thirty years as a symbol of law, of government, of community, located roughly in the center of the state of North Carolina. “That was always the marker,” Hobbs says, “When I hit the circle, I knew where I was.” It was a marker for many people throughout the state and the region because, as Hobbs says, “You have to drive around it. You have to experience it more intimately.”
He speaks of each building his firm works on as a kind of relationship where it is built in that at some point after all the conceptual conversations, the rigorous design work, the meticulous engineering and plans and construction drawings, the painstaking work of construction supervision—after often times years of obsessive work—it is a given that the building will belong to someone else. “It’s like you know from the start how the relationship is going to end,” Hobbs says. “But not this time. I drive by that building every day. I’m in there all the time. We don’t have to break up.”
Event Name: “The Courthouse” Documentary Debut in Pittsboro
Host: Pittsboro Youth Theater/Center for the Arts Pittsboro
When: Friday and Saturday, March 24th & 25th at 6:30 p.m.
Location: 18A East Salisbury Street, Pittsboro, NC 27312
Cost of Admission: $10 tickets benefit the Pittsboro Youth Theater/Center for the Arts and can be purchased at the online store at www.PittsboroYouthTheater.com ($1 goes to Chatham County History Museum)
More Info: After the 6:30 p.m. screening of “The Courthouse” there will be a long intermission and a chance to view history displays and learn about the Chatham County History Museum, followed by a screening of the 1962 feature “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck. Children ages 12 and up are welcome.
The documentary will also be aired on UNC TV’s North Carolina Channel on April 27th at 8 p.m.