Chowan County Courthouse, Edenton, NC


Historic Chowan County Courthouse Opens for Business Again

EDENTON -- With the loud crack of a gavel and the "oyez, oyez, oyez" call of a court clerk, the historic Chowan County Courthouse on Friday reopened for court business that began 237 years ago.

The state's oldest building still in public use picked up where it left off in 1993 when it was closed for renovations. This time, though, the compact Colonial-era building in Edenton housed a rare session of the N.C. Supreme Court.

In the afternoon, hundreds gathered in front of the stately two-story brick building for a ceremony marking its new era as a public gathering place. The courthouse, now owned by the state, will be used occasionally for court sessions and will serve as a historic site and meeting place.

A town crier dressed in colorful Colonial garb made the formal announcement without the aid of microphones and amplifiers.

"The Historic Chowan County Courthouse will now resume its place as the premier public gathering place for the citizens of Chowan County and the Town of Edenton," town crier Wrenn Phillips read aloud from a scroll, "and as one of the most prominent buildings in the history of this state and country."

Built in 1767, the Chowan Courthouse is considered the most intact Colonial courthouse in America because others were extensively modified. It held regular court sessions until 1979 when a modern facility opened several blocks away. The county transferred ownership to the state, which financed most of the $3.2 million renovations.

Opened under Tryon

The courtroom opened for business during the reign of King George III of England and Royal Gov. William Tryon.

As court opened Friday, Chief Justice Beverly Lake Jr. told the audience that the session marked the first time in 144 years that the court has met for official business outside Raleigh. After the announcement, the six justices got down to business as usual.

Well, not quite usual

In the spacious wood-paneled courtroom in Raleigh, justices sit in padded chairs behind a long bench with plenty of room for court papers. In Edenton, they sat on small cushions on a horseshoe-shaped bench at the front of the courtroom. Each had a small square table with a silver water goblet, a notebook and a microphone.

The microphones, like the television camera on one side of the room, were among the modern concessions for the day. The cases, one criminal and one civil, were serious court business.

In the first, the justices heard arguments in the appeal of a death sentence. In the other, an attorney for Murphy Family Farms appealed state fines assessed for a wastewater spill at a hog farm in 1998. The court will issue its decisions later.

'It was court'

"It was not a ceremonial session," said Christie Speir Cameron, clerk of the Supreme Court. "It was court."

Lawyers, the clerk and the county sheriff filled the small area before the bar. An audience of about 50 people including several judges and state and local politicians sat in temporary chairs in the spectator section.

Originally, the spectator section had no seats and people stood on a hard stone floor made of sandstone from York, England. Jurors sat on plain wooden benches behind the attorneys. The courtroom lacked heat when it was built and had a reputation for frigidity in modern times as well.

"I've sat in the jury box when there was ice on the outside of the window and on the inside," said Chowan Clerk of Court Michael McArthur.

Although the interior has been wired for electricity and includes a fire detection system, the look is spare and elegant. Spanish brown benches and rails stand out from the natural wood floor before the bar and the snow-white walls. The two main doors open directly to the inside, not to a lobby or hallway.

View of bay

The only lighting for the court session was sunlight that poured in through six tall windows. From Lake's perch at the front, there is a clear view of the tree-shaded courthouse green and the blue waters of Edenton Bay.

Henry W. Jones Jr., an attorney for Murphy Farms, made his argument to the justices with references to the law and the facts of his case, but he also elicited chuckles with a personal observation.

"In the 25 years I have been appearing before the court," he said, "this is the most fun I've had."

[Article from the News-Observer, Raleigh, NC]

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