At the junction of two streets named for the most famous opponents in the Civil War sits a building that for nearly a century symbolized reconciliation in Manassas, where the first land battle of that war took place.
For 90 years after it opened in 1894--on land donated by a former Union soldier and his Southern bride--the courthouse in Manassas was the seat of Prince William County's political power. Folks dressed in their finery and traveled a day's buggy ride to watch trials there. Lawyers, officials and business people congregated on its lawn. When the town staged a celebration of peace 50 years after the First Battle of Manassas, President William Howard Taft spoke from the courthouse lawn.
But by 1984, Prince William was a fast-growing suburb, not a bustling railroad outpost, and a new, larger courthouse was opened down the road. The building at Lee and Grant avenues in Manassas became the "old courthouse." The county locked its doors, and for 15 years, the striking red sandstone building sat eerily empty.
Two weeks ago, the county--which owns the courthouse and its property--went in. Decades of paint were peeling in layers from the courtroom's ornate tin ceiling. The original wood floors had been covered by carpet, the thick wood wainscoting by cheap plywood paneling. And, in the first of a two-phase restoration process the county hopes will restore the old courthouse to its historic glory, contractors began to peel, finish, replace--and turn back time.
Spurred on by a citizen group that has been rallying for the building's revitalization, Prince William has gathered about $840,000 for the restoration, with most coming from the county itself, and $150,000 each from the state and the City of Manassas. The money will be used to convert the courthouse's first floor into offices for the clerk of the court's public services staff; the second-floor courtroom will be used for functions such as weddings, receptions and perhaps even art shows.
Those involved in the restoration say it is fitting that the courthouse be returned to its role as a public space, albeit for different sorts of ceremonies than trials and jury deliberations. And in an area that prides itself for its role in the Civil War and in the development of railroad lines, there seems to be no shortage of interest in a renewed historical site.
"You wouldn't believe the number of people who call me," said Lou Ann Purkins, the county architect, who is overseeing the work at the old courthouse and--in her spare time--fielding calls from people who have heard about the renovation. They say, " 'Hey, we saw this, and when do you think we can book a wedding?' Well, not quite yet."
"Any time that people can be in a historical place where people in the past have walked and lived and influenced events, that does imbue a certain sense of significance, a special feeling," said Scott Harris, director of Manassas's museum system. "We haven't had very many places right in Manassas where you could do that."
But the county's courthouse renovation is part of a change. (Other city projects, such as the restoration of the old Hopkins Candy Factory and the creation of the city pavilion, also are contributing to the historical gentrification of Manassas.)
The building reconstruction will move in two phases, due to be finished next July at the earliest, Purkins said. The first will focus on the building's infrastructure; the second on the actual interior restoration.
Much of the impetus for opening up the old courthouse has come from Kathy Sobrio, a county resident who five years ago saw potential in a place that had once been at the core of civic life in Prince William.
"The courthouse was just out there--nothing was going to happen to it," Sobrio said. Yet it had been a place of significance, she knew, and there were plenty of people who still recalled its high-ceilinged courtroom, its symmetrical stairways, its arching doorways.
"There are many people in Manassas who went to the courthouse to do their business," Sobrio said. "There are many lawyers in the county who went to the courthouse to practice law there."
Sobrio formed the Alliance for the Revitalization of the Court House (ARCH), and the group began to rally the county on the building's behalf.
And as she and others delved deeper into century-old documents about the building, gems of the past came to light. The old courthouse was a contentious subject before it was built, because it replaced one in Brentsville--also recently earmarked for restoration--and few people there were happy about that. It took 20 years to pass a resolution to move the county seat to Manassas.
And when it came time to build the structure, the land came from a Northerner, George Carr Round, who had previously been a lieutenant in the Union Army, and his wife, a Manassas native. Round named Lee and Grant avenues in the spirit of reconciliation, Harris said.
Back then, the courthouse meant something different. It was an integral part of people's social lives.
"Certainly in the South, the courthouse was a place both of entertainment and of social intercourse," said John Foote, a Manassas lawyer. "All the lawyers came in their suits and their hats. . . . And folks would come in in their finery to watch the trials, to see the bad guys arraigned."
With renewed focus on the courthouse these days, people who remember working in the building say memories come bubbling back. Arthur Sinclair, 84, a retired circuit court judge, began his days at the courthouse as a lawyer in 1939. He served as a judge from 1950 to 1980 and well remembers the building's quirks. The high ceilings, which made it hard to hear. The cramped quarters of the jury room. The way the courthouse's grounds served as a social stage for county dramas.
"The jury room was fairly small, and if some of the jurors got excited, you could stand outside in the hall and hear what they were talking about," Sinclair said.
And in one memorable case, in which two Nokesville neighbors feuded over a wandering bull, Sinclair recalls watching three witnesses duking it out outside the building.
During Prohibition, there were "a lot of whiskey cases," Sinclair said. (It seems the folks toward the southern end of the county, in Triangle, Occoquan and Lake Jackson, had a taste for bootlegging.)
There also were a number of cases involving injuries and deaths from the railroad. People back then weren't used to looking carefully before crossing the railroad tracks, Sinclair said. And later, as Interstates 66 and 95 paved sections of the county, the dockets became heavy with cases involving eminent domain.
Sinclair also remembers the first days after the new county courthouse was opened.
"It was sort of sad to see, no question about it," he said. "I pointed up towards the building, and I said something to the effect of, 'This was the end of an era.' And one of the Prince William lawyers corrected me and said, 'No it isn't. It's the beginning of an era.' "
Then, a new building got a new start. Now, an old building gets one, too.
CAPTION: Two weeks ago, Prince William reopened the "old courthouse," which had been deserted for 15 years, to begin the first of a two-phase restoration process. Construction manager Seena Vasan, left, oversees the work as contractors peel, finish and replace--and turn back time.
CAPTION: Seena Vasan describes repairs in the old courtroom. Above him is the ornate tin ceiling, where there is a hole for an air conditioning system, since removed.