The Guilford County Courthouse celebrates 100 years in 2020. Due to associations with military history, it is perhaps the most famous courthouse by name in the world, but the Greensboro landmark is just the latest of a series of historic courthouses that have served the county since its inception in 1771.
The Guilford Courthouse name is known around the world for the Pyrrhic victory that happened there by General Lord Cornwallis of England over United States General Nathanael Greene in 1781. Somewhat confusing is the fact that the historic courthouse of the Revolutionary War battlefield is not the same historic courthouse in downtown Greensboro. The story of the succession of courthouses culminates with the stately century-old edifice at 301 West Market Street.
When Guilford County was ratified by the North Carolina’s colonial assembly in 1771 from parts of Orange and Rowan counties, Royal Governor Tryon needed to identify a location for its courthouse. The residence of Robert Lindsay was selected for immediate use as a courthouse. Its previous use as an ordinary (tavern) location near the crossroads of two major roads and with Lindsay’s prominent status, his home served as a convenient county judicial center for three years.
The First Courthouse
The Lindsay House was just over a mile east of the county line and not convenient for many citizens across the 658 square mile county. A more central site was chosen for the courthouse on the land of Governor Tryon’s loyal administrator Edmund Fanning in 1774. The new courthouse, the first erected for the purpose of public administration, was described as “a large log building” and rectangular in plan that was occupied by 1775. Its location was referenced as “Guilford Courthouse.” The plan of the structure likely included just one court room, perhaps with a smaller room for jury discussions and office space.
In 1780, Fanning’s courthouse property was confiscated and sold to Alexander Martin and Thomas Henderson. Martin was one of Guilford County’s first representatives and later served two terms as North Carolina governor. Henderson was clerk of court, the chief of staff for the county. By virtue of its familiarity as a regional landmark and subsequent assembly point for American militia, the Guilford Courthouse took its role as the reference and namesake for the nearby Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781.
Martin and Henderson acquired an additional 100 acres of land adjacent to the courthouse for a village with residences, stores, and public houses. In 1785 the location of “Guilford Courthouse” was renamed “Martin(s)ville” in honor of Alexander Martin. (For more information on this history, refer to Martinville – A Courthouse, a Battle, a Town in Guilford County History written by and available through Charles D. Rodenbough)
The village of Martinville was modest, composed of a crossroads with at least 11 houses (image, right). In 1787 the log courthouse was improved with a wood frame addition built by Captain Porter Shaw. Perhaps this addition expanded court space or adjunct spaces. By 1796, another expenditure was ordered for the building for repairs at courthouse, including repairs of window shutters, broken glass, and steps. The “Barr” [sic] was made taller and longer, and the jury box was improved. More repairs were ordered by 1799.
The first courthouse had at least one noteworthy celebrity association. In 1787, Andrew Jackson boarded in Martinville and practiced law in the courthouse. Additionally, on June 2-3, 1791, then Governor Martin accommodated George Washington in his home just one-half mile from the courthouse and the pair reviewed the battleground as part of the President’s southern tour.
By 1807, the number of repairs needed for the first courthouse caused county officials to consider building a new structure of substance. A contract was proposed for erection of a brick courthouse and jail, and a tax levy was proposed to pay for construction. By this time, Guilford County had taken smaller geographic dimensions after Rockingham and Randolph counties were split from northern and southern portions of the county respectively. Some residents saw an opportunity to establish a new county seat that was more central and with land for commercial development. By act of legislature in 1808, the North Carolina general assembly established the county seat at the geographic center of the county and named the location Greensborough in honor of General Nathaneal Greene.
The Second Courthouse
The village of Greensborough was platted on 42 acres of land acquired for $98 and its lots were sold to raise funds to finance a new courthouse. However, only $1689 was raised through the sale of village lots so the second courthouse was built in 1809 to accommodate the modest budget. The frame building was located on East Street (today’s East Market Street), where the parking deck is being erected for the Wyndham Hotel (in 2020). The one-story house was intended to be temporary. When it was it was replaced, county historians reported it was sold to Reverend Paisley who moved the structure (or just its timbers) to the 300 block of West Market Street. One hundred years later, in 1929, the structure was again relocated, this time to 409 Hillcrest Drive in Westerwood where it stands today (image. right).
The Third Courthouse
By 1818, a new tax levy increased county coffers to construct a permanent “handsome public edifice” of two-stories in the intersection of North, East, South, and West streets. The brick structure of 33 feet by 30 feet was constructed in the center of what would today be the intersection of today’s Market and Elm. It was likely oriented east and west as Market was considered the village’s main street and though no images are known, it was said to have been “a handsome edifice with an Ionic front” that perhaps included a portico in the style of the Paisley-Sloan-Logan House. This third courthouse held four offices on the ground floor and had four doorways each centered down a street. On the second floor was located a courtroom, jury room, and library space. In the late 1820s, a town clock was affixed to the courthouse as was a weathervane featuring a fish.
As early as 1849, the building was observed to block traffic moving through the center of the village, as the courthouse occupied most of the right-of-way. Historian James W. Albright recorded “It was not only in the way of the growing town, but too small for county purposes…” Other citizens were not so tactful, said one “I feel like giving he old court house a blast, and heaving it out of the principal street in Greensboro’, and erecting a new and better one…”
The Fourth and Fifth Courthouses
In 1856, the North Carolina Railroad was completed from Raleigh to Charlotte through Greensboro, and with the arrival of modern transportation, county leadership saw an opportunity to exemplify the new era with a modern county courthouse. Construction on the fourth courthouse began in 1858 on a new site overlooking the intersection of Elm and Market replacing the frame and fire-vulnerable Hopkins Tavern. The building was designed “in the Roman-Corinthian style, of brick stuccoed, with a graceful wooden tower…” by Greensboro newspaper editor and architect Lyndon Swaim. Contractors McKnight, Houston and Collier completed the $17,383 structure in 1859. Like its predecessor, offices on the ground floor were topped by a grand court room on the second.
In 1871, this fourth courthouse burned in a great fire that destroyed several other landmarks in the block, including Porter’s Drug Store. The fifth courthouse was reconstructed upon the first-floor walls of the earlier building, with Lyndon Swain (again) serving as architect. A few changes were made for fireproofing, such as reconstruction of the cupola and cornices with iron instead of wood. The reconstruction project cost $21,000.
Remembered one contemporary resident, “The fifth Court House built in Greensboro was as beautiful as any building needed to be. There were Norman arches on the ground level, Corinthian columns rising above then, a clock tower with graceful cupola over all. It was a large court house too, thick walled with sturdy interior trim of black walnut. Open fires furnished warmth in many of the rooms.”
The Sixth Courthouse
By 1915, Guilford has grown to one of the largest and wealthiest counties in North Carolina. Capacities for judiciary space and records management soared far beyond the capacity of the old building located at Courthouse Square. In addition, a contraption known as the automobile congested adjacent streets that had previously only known the clip-clop of horse drawn carts. Car horns and petrol fumes were distractions to court functions, especially in the summer when windows had to be opened.
County officials proposed a 10-story courthouse, high enough to rise above the noise and fumes, and included a new county jail as well as office space to lease to support the county with income. The county’s electorate voted this proposal down by a narrow margin. It was Commissioner William C. Jones of High Point who proposed options be obtained for a group of properties facing West Market Street for a new courthouse site, centered on creating a new 300-foot town square known as “Courthouse Park”.
Greensboro architect Harry Barton was selected to prepare plans and designs. He proposed the courthouse be built in the center of the new square to a scale that exceeded any such structure in the state at the time. The old courthouse was sold in 1917 to Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company, which erected its headquarters on the site. The old “Courthouse Square” was renamed “Jefferson Square” in 1922.
Harry Barton was a Philadelphia native with architectural training from Temple College, George Washington University, and the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. He and his wife Rachel Phillips Barton moved to Greensboro in 1912 and established an architectural firm with Frank Weston. He was one of the first licensed architects in North Carolina, his license #44 issued in 1915 from the North Carolina Board of Architecture. Barton designed many courthouses across the state, including those for Alleghany County, Alamance County, Cumberland County, Johnston County, and Surry County.
Barton brought an historically inspired design sense to Greensboro. His churches were Gothic, his houses were European or Colonial, and his civic buildings were Classical. After just five years in town, he held influence to win the commission for the sixth Guilford County Courthouse.
Construction on the sixth Guilford County Courthouse began in 1918. Its Renaissance Revival architectural theme was familiar in the period, but he used a sophisticated adaptation of Greek rather than Roman ornament. The building took a grand scale, 74-feet wide and 170-feet long. The exterior was faced in Mount Airy granite except for detailed ornament that was composed of terra cotta to match the granite. The building rose five stories over West Market Street, but the partially obscured basement and top floor insinuated a three-story building – perhaps a way to diminish the stature of a taxpayer-financed project.
Details of the building are of a quality and composition common to larger cities, including the northern and southern entrances porticos. The Greek porticos feature Ionic columns with pediments that are richly ornamented with a cartouche embodying a symbol of Justice. The project cost $750,000 to complete.
When the building was completed in 1920, interior details were revealed to be equally substantial. The main lobby is finished with buff Kasota marble from Minnesota and Caen limestone from France. Ornamental plaster cornices and ceilings frame these spaces with neoclassical motifs. Woodwork is composed of native white oak. Arrangements for interior spaces are generous. The first level held accommodations for the register of deeds, clerk of Superior Court, and a records room. The second level contains a two-story court room that is finished in white oak paneling, a gallery, and a coffered ceiling. Today it serves as the meeting space for the elected Guilford County Board of Commissioners. The top floor originally held a jail, and an apartment for the jailer and his family, but this space has been converted for office use.
By 1966, Guilford County held the second largest population in the state, and officials sought a campus that was representative of this stature. A national search for designers led to the selection of Eduardo Catalano as architect of a superblock that would accommodate city and county administrative functions called Governmental Center. Catalano was internationally known for embassies and educational buildings of Brutalist style.
The project expanded on the Courthouse Square and combined five city blocks for large-scale buildings and pedestrian-friendly open space. Though Catalano famously stated, “It would take at least $1 million to renovate it to modern usefulness, and you could spend that money better in building new space,” the historic building was retained. The $7.6 million county administration building was just part of the larger $13 million Governmental Center project that included underground parking. The Brutalist style of the new complex contrasts with the neoclassicism of the old. County architect Robert Earnhart proposed that “the simple massing of the structure will help to express the dignity of the structure”.
Although county judiciary administration was relocated out of the old courthouse in 1973, the building retained an historic touchstone for Guilford County. In 1979, the (former) Guilford County Courthouse was listed to the National Register as part of a statewide thematic courthouse nomination.
In 1987, the county spent $300,000 to painting millwork on ceilings, and to update mechanical systems. Original metal windows were replaced with dark-tinted glass to better blend with the Brutalist architecture surrounding Governmental Center.
By 2017, the courthouse required refurbishment and maintenance. The county approved $2.5 million in work that ranged from repair of terra cotta cornices and new exterior doors. Additional work included the cleaning and repair of exterior masonry. Ellen Pratt Harris and Doulas K. Harris of Brevard were the architects of the project. Work was completed to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This family of Guilford County courthouses represent the growth and ambition of county residents, from a simple vernacular structure to an expansive campus on a scale rare in North Carolina. Today, the sixth courthouse now holds a record never exceeded with the celebration of a century of service.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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