Courthouse, Confederate included, to get new life as high-end apartments

by Jordan Green

The three-story Forsyth County Courthouse stands as a remnant of a more parochial past in the heart of downtown Winston-Salem, a couple blocks up from the brutalist-style Hall of Justice and in the shadow of the Winston Towers, RJ Reynolds Tobacco headquarters and One West Fourth buildings.

Long decommissioned as a base of political power and site for administering justice, the iconic building is undergoing preparations for a new life as a signature property in downtown’s residential population boom.

The Forsyth County Commission agreed to sell the property to a developer in Richmond, Va. last year for $700,000. Current plans by Clachan Properties, the developer, call for 57 units, including both one- and threebedroom apartments, available for rent by January 2015.

“I think it’s going to be primarily apartments — higher-end apartments — with nice finishes, marble countertops,” said Herb Coleman, CEO of Clachan Properties. “Some of the amenities will be a clubhouse and workout facility, maybe a gas fireplace. I think the plan is to have a small part of it be commercial where the utility room is on the northeast corner of Main and 4th streets. We might have a restaurant or sub shop on the first floor with some outdoor seating.”

While the building’s government and law functions are literally being consigned to history in favor of housing for a new era, a Confederate statue on the courthouse grounds will remain standing.

A planning document approved by city council on April 1 predicts that the number of jobs will double in downtown over the next two decades and the population will quadruple over the same period. Planners attribute the trend to rising energy costs and the increasing popularity of living in urban settings.

“Young folks want to live downtown and empty nesters are moving back,” Coleman said. “Young professionals want to live near the bars and restaurants. Winston’s really come a long way in the last 10 years or so. We’ve got a ways to go. There’s still pockets of streets and streetscapes that are yet to be redeveloped to kind of tie it all in.”

The courthouse was erected in the mid-1800s as something of a castoff by the Moravian leaders of Salem who wanted to keep their community free of the hurly-burly of state justice and found itself made obsolete in the next century by the demands of modernity.

“The powers that be originally wanted the courthouse to be located in Salem,” LeAnn Pegram, historic resources officer for the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission, told the Winston-Salem City Council during a hearing on the a recommendation to designate the property as a historic landmark. “However, in the mid-19 th century, courthouses seemed to be a place of vagabonds and nabobs, and all kinds of things went on at the courthouse, so the Salem Moravians did not want to have anything to do with that. And so they sold the land for the courthouse, which ultimately encompassed what is today Winston and Winston- Salem.”

The first courthouse was built in 1850, but was later demolished, according to research by the historic resources commission. A second courthouse was completed in 1896. The third and current courthouse, designed by the Northup & O’Brien architectural firm, was built in 1926, and enveloped components of the second courthouse. Two wings were added in 1959 and 1960.

Pegram said the value of the property is upwards of $2.8 million. The county agreed to sell the property to Clachan for $700,000 after a receiving no upset bids from other interested parties following advertisement of the potential sale, according to a county resolution. Staff recommended the sale because as a surplus property the courthouse held no use for the county and needed “costly maintenance and repairs.”

To be eligible for historic landmark designation, properties must demonstrate “singular outstanding local historic significance and a high degree of architectural integrity.” City council’s approval of the designation allows the developer to qualify for 50 percent property tax deferral in exchange for retaining the property’s important historic features.

Pegram said the estimated annual tax deferral would be $16,000, while noting that as a public asset to date the property has never been on the tax rolls.

In keeping with the restrictions, Coleman said the building’s two courtrooms will be kept intact as large open spaces and likely adapted for the uses of a lounge and business center. More contentious as a matter of preservation is the Confederate soldier statue standing guard with a rifle outside the courthouse at the corner of 4th and Liberty streets. Erected by the James B. Gordon Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1905, the monument simply says, “Our Confederate dead.”

Coleman told city council that his company agreed to allow the county to retain ownership of the statue, one of a number of monuments outside the building.

“We acquiesced on that and said, ‘We understand the importance of the statues to Winston-Salem,’” Coleman said, “and we were fine with breaking them out from the building itself.”

The Republican-controlled county commission approved the sale of the property excluding the monuments in March 2012 without public comment from any of the members.

“There has been much controversy around the Confederate soldier that is here at this particular site,” said Councilman James Taylor Jr. during the public hearing on April 1, before asking whether preservation of the monument would be necessary for the developer to qualify for tax credits.

Yet, as the courthouse transitions from the public to the private sphere, some of the sting of the statue’s presence might be removed by virtue of it no longer being attached to an establishment of local government and justice.

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke recalled that year ago she advocated for historic Old Salem to publicly acknowledge its part in slavery.

“So look at the Confederate,” she said.

“It defines people. Now a lot of folks are embarrassed…. And we’re just innocent people who have to tolerate it. And so it’s telling history. You can’t hide history. History is history, good, bad and indifferent. That’s just one of the bad.”

Coleman said he’s not aware of any other courthouses in North Carolina that have been adapted to residential uses, but it’s possible that one of the other 99 facilities has been redeveloped.

Success with another adaptive reuse project helped persuade the developer to take a chance on the Forsyth County Courthouse. Clachan Properties is finishing up Phase 2 of the Winston Factory Lofts project, with a total of 170 units when completed, at the corner of 6th and Main streets. Converted into apartments, the buildings were originally part of the Hanes knitting complex, where they produced T-shirts and hosiery, before being acquired by Reynolds Tobacco Co.

“It’s spectacular building,” Coleman said in reference to the company’s newest project. “I’d say the location of it being in the heart of downtown, the iconic history of it, the stately appearance helped us make the decision.

We’ve had good success down the street and we want to continue to do that with the courthouse.”