FREDERICKSBURG officials will be holding a public forum tonight, beginning at 6:15 p.m., at the old Renwick Courthouse to present the results of a $25,000 feasibility study on what should be done with the building that has been an imposing and inspiring part of the city’s skyline since 1852, but has been vacant since the new courthouse opened in 2014.
The old Gothic Revival courthouse was designed by acclaimed American architect James Renwick, Jr., who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the Smithsonian Institution “Castle” and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. During the Civil War, the courthouse was pressed into service as a barracks for Confederate soldiers, housing for newly escaped slaves, and as a hospital after the Battle of Fredericksburg, one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
National Park Service historian John Hennessy called the imposing structure Renwick designed on Princess Anne Street “the most important, impressive piece of architecture” in Fredericksburg and “an uncommon bit of finery” for a city not used to such architectural delights, with a graceful bell tower that boasts an 1828 bell made by Paul Revere’s foundry in Boston.
In fact, Hennessy pointed out, Fredericksburg residents balked at the original cost—a $300 design fee and nearly $14,000 for construction—with 172 signing an unsuccessful petition asking officials to slash it to $6,000. “Town council refused ... and today Fredericksburg has one of the finest gothic courthouses in the mid-Atlantic states,” Hennessy added.
And cost—this time not to build, but to preserve this historic structure—is once again an issue.
Time has taken its toll. According to a 2016 Historic Structures Report by Commonwealth Architects, moisture infiltration has led to cracks in the Portland-cement stucco and bell tower, and some of the building’s scissor trusses and other structural elements are damaged and need to be replaced.
Directly behind the city-owned Renwick Courthouse is an old jail, circa 1928, and the Wallace Library, built in 1910, both of which are currently vacant and also in need of repair. Restoration costs a lot of money, not to mention the expensive upkeep of historical structures once they are preserved.
Life is for the living, and not every old building in the city can or even should be saved. But the Renwick Courthouse is in a class of its own. It is an integral part of the downtown patina of a city with deep historical roots tracing back to colonial times. Last month on these pages, Danae Peckler, architectural historian and board member of The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, argued passionately for saving the courthouse.
“This building reflects an artistic revolution that yields national historic significance. It would be a terrible mistake to give this treasure away lightly. It is not merely square footage to be leased for a profit and a list of repairs to be offloaded; it is a formidable pillar of our community—past, present, and future,” she wrote, suggesting that the courthouse be repurposed as the city’s new Visitor’s Center.
That’s a splendid idea. Hopefully, other creative ideas on how to save this architectural gem from the wrecking ball will also be forthcoming, such as partnering with tour guides, restaurants, breweries and other local businesses to raise money for restoration work.
But the city needs to act quickly before the Renwick Courthouse deteriorates further and demolition becomes a fait accompli. That would be an irreparable and unconscionable loss to the city and future generations.