Why is the Southampton Courthouse so historic

Published 10:45 am Wednesday, April 6, 2016

by John Quarstein

Many people in Southampton County have questioned whether or not the Southampton County Courthouse should be considered historic. After 38 years of work as a museum director and preservationist, my belief is that a building or place becomes historic for a variety of reasons including connections with an event, person and architectural style which reflects the past beliefs, priorities and aspirations of a society. The Southampton County Courthouse meets this description and should be considered one of Courtland’s most historic places.

For individuals wishing to learn more about the importance of historic courthouses I suggest that they reference the volume written by John O. and Margaret Peters entitled VIRGINIA’S HISTORIC COURTHOUSES. As the Peters noted ‘courthouses are a structural manifestation of the collective memory, values and aspirations of a community.’ In his foreword to this book, Supreme Court justice Lewis A. Powell, Jr. reflected that for ‘much of our history, the courthouse has served not just as a local center of law and government but as meeting ground, cultural hub and social gathering place.’ Indeed, courthouses are a symbol in bricks and mortar of a community’s hopes, ideas and a commitment to justice. On pages 102-4 and 180, the Peters discuss how Southampton County Courthouse reflects the functional simplicity and classical beauty that makes this public structure the center of the community.

What makes the Southampton County Courthouse so historic: people, events and architecture. In 1833, a majority of justices in southeastern Virginia found it ’impractical for [the court] to hold its sessions in the courthouse.’ They directed that the old courthouse be removed from the public square and a new court building be constructed atop the 1798 courthouse site. Many believe that the true justification for building the new courthouse was Southampton County’s desire to remove the horrific memories associated with Nat Turner’s Rebellion. The 1834 Southampton Courthouse was constructed by Clement Rochelle and Jeremiah Cobb. Both of these men were associated with the trials that followed Nat Turner’s Uprising: Clement Rochelle was the county’s sheriff and Jeremiah Cobb served as a judge for many of the trials including the session that convicted Nat Turner. The new structure was extremely austere. While the courthouse retained the central block of many Jeffersonian-inspired courthouses, the building lacked a portico and was virtually devoid of classical details. The completed courthouse was a simple temple-form building with a pedimented gable, a simple cornice and a lunette window. About 1925, the Southampton Courthouse was improved in a traditional fashion by appending a portico to the front of the building. This action gave the courthouse a Greek Revival look. The result was a full-height entry porch with a classical pediment, featuring a typical band of cornice trim with dentils. The lunette window was replaced by a circular center window. The columns are Doric. The doorway was greatly enhanced with elaborate wooden door enframement, topped by a decorative pediment with dentils. Two flat Doric columns complete the door frame which is further topped by a narrow band of re3ctangular panes of glass held in a delicate, decorative frame. The doors themselves are paired and have three panels. A classical bell tower was also installed at the roof centerline. Since these classical improvements, the courthouse has been updated with a colonnade and other additions during the latter part of the 20th Century.

In summary, the Southampton Courthouse is historic due to the following factors:

*Architecture: Greek Revival completed in two stages: 1834 and 1925.

*People: Jeremiah Cobb and Clement Rochelle participated in the trials of Nat Turner and his followers.

Events: The courthouse witnessed the expansion of Courtland (then Jerusalem) as a transportation hub with the completion of the Jerusalem Plank Road in 1853. This enabled the town to become a supply hub for the Confederacy from 1862 to 1864. Furthermore, the existence of the courthouse gave rise to the town’s name being changed from Jerusalem to Courtland coinciding with the arrival of a new transportation system: the Atlantic & Danville Railroad in 1888.

The courthouse’s age, it is 182 years old, is a contributing factor making this building historic.

While serving as director of Newport News Museums, I organized the rehabilitation of the 1810 and 1884 Warwick County courthouses. Each building was historic in several ways. The diminutive size of the Georgian-styled 1810 structure reflected the declining population of Warwick County. It was used as a Union headquarters by Brigadier General Eramus Darwin Keyes and as a balloon launching site during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.

The 1884 building is Italianate in design and reflects the growth of Newport News as a railroad and shipbuilding community. Rehabilitation of these historic structures were funded via grants based upon a viable adaptive re-use strategy housing four different historic organizations and insured the preservation of Warwick C H’s historic streetscape.

There was never a question within the Newport News community whether or not these buildings needed to be preserved since the courthouses reflected on Warwick County’s transition into the city of Newport News. Actually, no community in Virginia has demolished a historic courthouse, as these buildings are architecturally significant and are witnesses to a community’s growth.

Accordingly, it is my opinion that the Southampton County Courthouse is indeed historic and should be preserved to retain Courtland’s historic streetscape. This courthouse, like so many others throughout Virginia, is a symbol of the rule of law and a reflection of Southampton County’s multi-faceted heritage.

JOHN V. QUARSTEIN is a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. He can be reached at (757) 879-3420.