Friday, March 13, 2015

Thoughts on the Augusta County Courthouse

I've written an Op-Ed for the Staunton News-Leader regarding Augusta County's plans for moving the courthouse to Verona. I have published it here:

I have been reading the various information and opinions about what to do about the County Courthouse in Staunton. There has been a lot of talk in the News Leader, on Facebook, and around the community. From what I have seen, the back and forth between Augusta County and the City of Staunton have appeared to be filled with facts and data, but there also seem to be other things under that surface: an odd mixture of resentments, competition, envy, even some macho posturing. I’ve been here 16 years but I have a feeling that some of this goes back a lot further than that. The problem is, this issue is too serious to be just a pawn in those kinds of silly games.

There is no doubt that the Courthouse complex as it is can’t work for much longer. It’s overcrowded and hasn’t been maintained or upgraded properly for years. But it’s equally true that the Courthouse isn’t just a building. It is something much more, something that contains powerful cultural, historical, and architectural symbolism for the city, the county, and the region. This kind of symbolism can’t just be moved. It is integral with its surroundings, its place.

The courts have been in this location since the beginning of Staunton’s settlement in the eighteenth century. The city has grown around it since that time, with more than one version occupying the site. The current Circuit Courthouse was designed by T. J. Collins and is 114 years old. The District Courts building across the street is also architecturally significant, though it too has been neglected and damaged by poor maintenance choices. The courts are a part of the life of downtown Staunton with a web of law offices and other businesses that are connected to them in many different ways. The fact that the buildings are being used for what they were meant for is critical to their impact and their meaning.

If the courts are pulled out of downtown, what is left will be a few pretty structures, but the heart and the life of them will be damaged forever, and what was lost will not be replicated in Verona. Think about what the Government Center is like when you go there now. Is there any heart and soul? There are functional generic spaces with no cultural or architectural significance whatsoever. This is the future for the courts if they are moved there. The project will go to the lowest bidder and the result will be utterly forgettable. No one will come to Verona to see the architecture of the courthouse. The money will never be spent to create something of that caliber. Even if it was, there isn’t any context to the site to support it. Something as architecturally significant as the existing courthouse would be utterly out o place at the Government Center.

That web of life that exists in downtown Staunton will not be replicated in Verona either. It is possible that some legal offices might move, but the restaurants and other businesses that thrive in part due to the patronage of those offices downtown won’t move-they can’t survive on that traffic alone. So the result will be that Verona and the county won’t gain much business from the move, and back in downtown Staunton, those businesses may lose some of their income and be weaker as a result. This is bad news for everyone.

These buildings are also part of the attraction of Staunton and Augusta County to people from elsewhere who come to visit, and who come to live here. The architecture of the courthouse has a life and story attached to it that transcends its walls. Living in this environment every day we may forget how rare and beautiful our small town is. But outsiders notice. The value of our city – its attractiveness as a get-away destination, a fine maybe-I-could-build-my-life/business-here small town is fragile unless we do what we can to preserve its soul. The courthouse is the heart of not just Staunton but the county as well. The two aren’t really separate. They share the same history and culture.

I don’t reserve my comments just for the county. Clearly having the courts in Staunton is a benefit, both from a standpoint of history, architecture, and business. Keeping it there is an investment in my view just as important as or even more important than other investments the city makes, such as getting the Stonewall Jackson Conference Center open downtown, or re-doing the streetscape, or any others one can think of. I for one, think it is worth the City chipping in some amount of money to keep it downtown. Sure, 50% is probably asking a bit much, but perhaps 15-20% is worth it.

So why can’t the county take the original reply to their offer by the city as an opening negotiation, and come back with another counter offer? Why does there have to be a forced rush to move the courts? And why can’t the city come back then with their offer? Perhaps with some real money to invest, in something critical to downtown? We just get over the posturing and just sit down and reach a mutual solution. Keep the heart beating in downtown Staunton. Do it together for all of us, in Staunton and Augusta County.

Michael C. Brown / Architect
Staunton, VA
I haven't posted for a while but I wanted to update anyone interested on the situation at the Amtrak station. Thankfully, due to a lot of work and diligence by Frank Strassler at Historic Staunton, and Sharon Angle with the City of Staunton, the Amtrak plan was modified and implemented with the historic features of the station intact. Thanks to both of them for the hard work.