It’s satisfying when a good plan comes together!
A case in point involves the Historic 1904 Coweta County Courthouse. The historic courthouse was and is now a beautiful example of Classical Revival architecture. Its voluminous rooms are punctuated by many high windows that in bygone days allowed a modicum of summer air conditioning when breezes could be captured. After ninety-five years of wear ‘n tear the courthouse needed many improvements, not to mention the adaptations necessary to overcome the absence of an elevator to the second floor Superior Courtroom. The challenge was how to efficiently and effectively use an antiquated, but historic public building, as well as find space to accommodate the twenty first century needs of the Coweta Circuit Court System which had out grown the courthouse. By 1999, land records and Superior Court fully occupied the old courthouse. Magistrate and Probate Courts had moved to the County Administration Building and State Court offices and courtrooms were scattered in six locations all over downtown Newnan.
At the same time that the County Board of Commissioners were faced with making court facilities improvements, they also had to decide whether or not to make improvements to the building the Commission occupied downtown – the old “welfare” building – or to relocate to a building that could serve administration needs – most likely away from downtown. As County elected officials and administrators contemplated location options, it became apparent that the daytime population downtown could be negatively impacted if both County government services and court services were organized away from downtown Newnan.
Time for a bit of history: Local lore has it that the chinaberry trees in the location of the downtown square were going to be easier to cut down than the trees at the original site of the county seat, Bullsboro. Which is why, in 1827, Newnan became the seat of government and court services in Coweta County. The hill that Newnan is built upon is also pretty close to being the center of the county. Until the mid-1990s, downtown Newnan was the county’s primary business district. Kessler’s offered notions, children’s clothing, fresh popped corn and all kinds of candies; there were three shoe stores and three clothing anchors downtown. Shoppers could eat at the grill and pick up a prescription in Lee-King Drugstore. Downtown hardware stores offered paint, appliances, lumber and nails. As has happened in many communities, most clothing and household goods retailers left Downtown for more spacious buildings and commodious parking in strip centers on the frontage of Bullsboro Drive. In the wake of this exodus, Downtown had to reinvent itself. Instead of retail anchors, Newnan’s downtown transitioned very successfully to a service center anchored by court, legal, financial, and government services.
County officials foresaw a chain reaction impact upon the locational preferences of many related professional services, if court services and government services left Downtown. City elected officials were consulted and shared the same concerns. The County owned property a few miles northwest of downtown Newnan and although locating the Justice Center on this property was an easy option, an important service anchor would be leaving downtown. There was still no clear answer for maintaining all court services in downtown Newnan.
A multi-faceted, phased plan was conceived to manage the consolidation of court services in a way that would retain them in a geographically central location, and restore and continue to use the historic courthouse. In 1999, the need
for a SPLOST to fund a modern facility
for the offices and courtrooms of the Coweta Circuit Court was taken to the community, and approved. The 2000-2006 SPLOST would provide the financing needed for a new, modern Justice Center. A land acquisition option arose that would allow the Justice Center to locate only two blocks away from the historic courthouse. This was the option taken. The Justice Center opened in 2006 and houses Magistrate, State, and Superior Court offices and courtrooms as well as the Real Estate records and Clerk of Court offices. Juvenile Court services are located nearby. The offices of the County Administration remain in the “old welfare” building, benefiting from additional space that opened when the Magistrate Court and its offices and courtroom relocated to the new Justice Center.
In 2004, the County celebrated the centennial anniversary of the Historic 1904 County Courthouse. In 2005, the community was again asked to support a SPLOST that included renovation of the old courthouse. This time, as a demonstration of the importance of this historic building to the community, each participating city allocated a portion of its SPLOST proceeds toward the renovation. The 2006-2012 SPLOST was approved.
A citizen’s committee was appointed to involve the community in the decisions that had to be made to restore this iconic building and its grounds. The doves and bats had to be driven out of the bell tower and its supporting timbers replaced or strengthened. New custom molded copper plates for the dome gleamed in the sunshine for a couple of months after they were installed and have since weathered to a rich patina. Restoration of the bullet riddled clock face required custom glass panels (local lore explaining the holes is fodder for another installment). The new timepiece now accurately heralds the hour and half-hour. Historic photos of the courthouse were solicited and the best information about the interior came from photos in private collections. Careful restoration techniques revealed the original color of the wall paint, and the fact that the ornate “oak” woodwork inside the courtroom was actually pine that had been artfully stained to resemble oak; an elegant cost saving measure of the time. The Historic 1904 Courthouse opened with great fanfare in September 2010 and is again the centerpiece of the square in downtown Newnan. This re-use and restoration project was the 2010 winner of the North American Copper in Architecture Award, and was recognized by the Georgia Trust with the 2011 Preservation Award for Excellence in Restoration.
The offices of Probate Court now occupy most of the first floor of the historic courthouse and an elevator allows Probate Court to use the beautifully restored second floor courtroom. The Coweta County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, also on the first floor, welcomes 40 to 60 visitors a day and over 1,000 per month who come to Newnan and Coweta County.
Downtown businesses encircling the courthouse square include retail specialty shops, restaurants, banks,
a fitness center, and an array of professional services including financial planning, insurance, and legal offices. Catty-corner from the southwest corner of the courthouse is the historic Carnegie Building which the City of Newnan has restored to its former glory.
Along the second tier of the downtown grid, an array of personal, business, and automotive service
establishments are thriving. Several of these buildings offer apartments above street level shops. Loft apartments in repurposed warehouse buildings are three blocks from the court square.
Attractive sidewalks resulting from the Downtown Streetscapes program invite the pedestrian to stroll among many interesting destinations and eateries. The motorist is taken through Downtown on one-way pairs which efficiently handle through traffic and local traffic. Parking lots are scattered around the downtown within a block of the main thoroughfare and the short walk from a lot takes you past more shops and services.
Newnan’s vibrant downtown is not a coincidence. Collaborative advocacy on the part of Downtown merchants, the Newnan Main Street program, the Downtown Development Authority, and many conscientious city and county community leaders have supported Downtown vitality by giving people reasons to be Downtown. Successful achievement of community and economic development goals takes time, and a long range perspective filled with many short range strategic plans executed in concert with many players who put the community first.
By Sandra Parker, AICP, Comprehensive Planner (with contributions from L. Theron Gay, County Administrator and Cindy Brown, Clerk of Superior Court)