A little more than a month after Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) killed funding for the project as part of a broader budget veto, the restoration of the Brentsville Courthouse has received a sizable boost -- a federal grant that will keep ambitious rehabilitation plans on schedule for the historic community.
Supporters of the restoration effort learned this week that the federal TEA-21 program has awarded a grant of $150,000 to the project this year, renewing a grant that was made last year. The federal program aims to fund transportation enhancement efforts across the nation, including making roadways and landmarks more scenic. So far it is the chief funding source for the courthouse project. Final approval of the grant could come by the end of June.
In April, Gilmore vetoed more than $10 million in "wasteful spending" items, including a $25,000 state grant that had been earmarked for the Brentsville project. Though supporters of the revitalization had feared the loss of funding would hurt their plans, the renewal of the federal grant should keep efforts on track.
Local supporters are pushing for a long-term project to completely restore the Brentsville Courthouse and surrounding buildings, a plan that includes making Brentsville into a living-history community that would be modeled after Colonial Williamsburg. In its second year, the restoration effort is looking to gain steam and financial momentum for what could be a lengthy and costly endeavor.
"The restoration of the courthouse itself is quite extensive," said Wilkie Leith, vice chairman of the Friends of Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre. "Doors have been replaced, brickwork needs to be repaired, and landscaping has been removed because it was causing damage to the foundation. Plaster walls are being repaired, and all of this costs money."
Preservationists, county officials and the county's park authority joined in late 1997 to form a unique alliance to save old Brentsville, a town that had its heyday just before the Civil War but has faded into obscurity since, changing from a bustling town square to a clump of ignored old buildings.
Old Brentsville, located on Bristow Road near Brentsville Road, was Prince William's fourth county seat beginning in 1822, when the courthouse, jail and the court clerk's buildings were completed. County officials looked to Brentsville for the placement of the county's offices because of its centrality -- it is the geographic center of the county -- and the offices remained there until 1894, when they were moved to Manassas.
Described as a vibrant community by historians, Brentsville hit on hard times during the Civil War, when Union troops razed the village and tore down several buildings, brick by brick, so they could build fireplaces for high-ranking officers. The courthouse, however, survived the war and now is one of the few antebellum Southern courthouses that still stands, Leith said.
"It really went through the conflicted periods of slavery -- there were hangings that took place there -- and then the Civil War," Leith said yesterday. "But it was also the center of Prince William County until 1894, sitting on a beautiful stretch of land right on the edge of Broad Run."
Though the restoration effort has garnered just more than $550,000 so far, $300,000 of which has come through federal transportation grants, the project is in just its beginning phase.
Work has begun on the inside of the courthouse, and some private tours have been given, though visits have been limited because the building's structure is still considered fragile. The grounds, which are public, have been in use as recreational fields and picnic areas, though they could undergo a transformation in coming years.
Organizers of the effort said its total cost will be more than $1 million. Leith said that the multilayered project could take up to 10 years, but that the ultimate goal will be worth it. She envisions a major historical attraction, much like Williamsburg.
"The overriding mission is of course to restore, in a historically accurate way, these buildings and to provide historical background," Leith said.
"It's realistic with the understanding that it could be five to 10 years down the road. We have a lot of support from the community, and a lot of support from the state. It seems to grow every day.
"This is an absolutely spectacular place," she said.
CAPTION: The Brentsville Courthouse, which dates back to 1822, is the focal point in an extensive community revitalization project that could cost $1 million and take up to 10 years to complete.