Caswell County Courthouse

Caswell County Courthouse

Caswell County Courthouse
  • Completed 1861
  • Designed by William Percival
  • National Register of Historic Places
  • Cost: $28,000

Historical Sketch

This historic old building has seen much. If these walls could talk many would listen. The Courthouse has seen proud times, troublesome times, and tragic times. It has endured occupation, murder, and fire. The first Caswell County public library was housed in its dark and mysterious basement. It was home to respected and loved Register of Deeds Burch Blaylock. And, it saw the murder of Senator John W. Stephens.

The Caswell County Courthouse was completed at the end of what has been called Caswell County's "Boom Era" -- from approximately 1830 until the Civil War. It is a handsome building, with a storied past. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it no longer functions as the hub of county business, which is sad. Many can still remember when the Courthouse was alive with governmental and political activity. Many can still remember court week, election eve, and, possibly, just getting their first driver's license there. It was where you found the sheriff, the tax collector, the register of deeds, the clerk of the court, and, many years ago, the Freedman's Bureau. The air was electric, the smell of the building distinctive, as government unfolded before your eyes.

To many it is the symbol of the greatness of Caswell County. To others it is a reminder of the absolute worst in the hearts of men. However, after all this, the majestic Courthouse remains standing.

As late as April 1857, the county was still considering making repairs to the old courthouse. That building, the third Caswell County Courthouse, had been damaged by fire that year, and there was local disagreement over whether to repair or replace it. The following is found in the minutes of the April 1857 session of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions ("Court"):

Ordered commission to be appointed to consider the propriety of repairing the Court House and to report the best plan of proceeding for the public convenience in regard to the courthouse and to procure and exhibit a plan or plans of alternative or repairs with the probable cost. Commission -- Wm. Long, N. M. Lewis, Daniel S. Price, Joseph S. Totten, Calvin Graves, Benjamin F. Standfield, Bluford W. Cooper, John Cobb and Wagstaff Maynard. Ordered that they have leave to employ architect to aid in preparing a plan.

This commission wasted no time and persuaded the Court that a new building was preferred over making repairs to the old courthouse. In its July 1857 session, the Court made the following order:

Ordered by the Court that a new Court House shall be built and that the old one be disposed of by the Commissioners herein appointed to the best advantage to aid in the erection of the new court house. Following persons appointed as commissioners for new building: S. P. Hill, Wm. Long, E. K. Withers, C. H. Richmond, and N. M. Lewis to employ an architect and contract for the building of the said Court House and they are also empowered and authorized to purchase a lot or piece of land if in their opinion it is necessary on which to build the new court house.

However, the membership of this commission soon was changed to add John Cobb, Wagstaff Maynard, and Dr. Nathaniel M. Roan. And, in October 1858, C. N. B. Evans was paid $4.50 for "publishing the letting of the building of the new court house." Presumably, this had something to do with the construction of the new building. Dr. Nathaniel M. Roan became chairman of the commission. His goal of purchasing a chandelier from England for the center of the courtroom was never realized, being interrupted by the Civil War. The interior furnishings of the courthouse were not completed until the 1870s.

In April 1859 the Court directed the County Treasurer to pay all drafts drawn by the "commission who have charge of building of [the] court house in payment of expenses and charges of said building" and that the County Treasurer be reimbursed for all such sums already paid. A similar order was issued in July 1859. Construction of the new courthouse was underway, and miscellaneous bills had to be paid. And, of course, taxes were levied to pay for the new structure.

At the July 1861 term of the Court, County Trustee Thomas D. Johnston reported a payment of $200 to William Percival, architect, and a payment of "about $25,000" to David McKnight of Greensboro, the contractor who built the courthouse. McKnight was a mason by trade and would have been around fifty years old in 1861.

It also appears that the Yanceyville post office had been housed in one of the rooms of the courthouse, because the Court in that same July 1861 session "ordered and directs that the Post Office shall no longer be kept in any of the rooms of the Court House and that the same shall be removed and the sheriff of said county is hereby directed to notify Alex McAlpin of this order by serving a copy of this order on him." Presumably, McAlpin was the postmaster. The same Court also appointed James L. McKee "to keep and take care of Court House and to attend to the keeping of the public clock in order for 1 year," for which he was to be paid $50.

While not related to the new courthouse, the in July 1861 the Court also appointed a committee "to aid and provide for the families of such soldiers as have volunteered to serve in the War against Abe Lincoln's scoundrels."

What became of the old courthouse structure is not known, but some believe that parts (such as windows and doors) were incorporated into various houses built in Yanceyville, especially the Roan House remodelling.

Until 1868, North Carolina counties were governed by the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, which was composed of justices. As few as three apparently made a quorum. And, the minutes of the Caswell County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions show from three to thirty-five justices assembled quarterly for a five-day session to transact county business and to act as an inferior court. In 1868, the North Carolina constitution was amended to vest county government in a board of county commissioners.

Architectural Overview

From An Inventory of Historic Architecture--Caswell County North Carolina, Ruth Little-Stokes (1979) at 38-41 and 195 (links added):

The fourth Caswell County Courthouse . . . was erected between 1857 and 1861 following the destruction of the third courthouse. The building is located near the site of the previous building on the south side of the square [in Yanceyville]. Erected during the final years of the town's Boom Era, the building breaks the quiet Greek Revival atmosphere. It is a monumental embodiment of Victorian institutional architecture, combinig Italian Romanesque and Classical features in a design unique to courthouse architecture in North Carolina.

The only antebellum public building remaining in Caswell County is the courthouse . . . in Yanceyville. It was designed by an outsider and is completely unrelated to domestic Caswell architecture, for it represents the eclectic experimentation with combinations of historical styles in vogue throughout the United States during this period. Domestic architecture has always been more conservative than commercial and institutional architecture, since one is less inhibited when not making a personal statement of taste, and this general tendency was particularly pronounced in the South. The courthouse . . . , a rectangular two-story masonry sturcture with a domed cupola crowned by a latern, is designed in the Classical Revival tradition. The second story, the piano nobile of Italian Renaissance origin, is the principal floor, containing the courtroom. The offices are housed in the low first floor. The structure is sited on the crest of a hill with broad vistas in several directions. Curiously, it is not in the center of town but sits on the edge of the small county seat, and the land slopes steeply away from the building on the rear (south) side. Apparently the county fathers did not anticipate this outcome in 1791 when they built the first courthouse at the newly selected county seat, then raw land.

The majestic building has an arched pavilion in the center of each side. The main (north) elevation contains a recessed porch at both basement and courtroom level, with an arcade infilled with a classical balustrade. The capitals of the arcade pilasters, one of the most memorable features of the entire design . . . consist of colorfully painted metal ears of corn and tobacco leaves. These resemble the corn capitals on Playmakers Theatre at the University of North Carolina, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in the early 1830's. The architect could certainly have been inspired by these novel capitals. The major decorative feature is the heavy corbel cornice with a brick arched corbel course, derived from Italian Romanesque architecture, which borders the frieze. The strong contract of solid and void resulting from the richly molded ornament and the boldly pierced form make this one of the finest Victorian courthouses in North Carolina.

The perfectly preserved courtroom . . . may be the most magnificently decorated courtroom in North Carolina, and is a living document of Southern 19th century justice. The original judge's bench, a richly paneled cabinet, is set in front of a deep plastered alcove framed by a wide molded plaster surround with Corinthian colonnettes. At the rear of the alcove is a door leading to a small stair which provides a private entrance and exit for the judge. Cast-iron railings of ornate foliate design partition the jury, prosecution and defense areas in a semi-circular zone around the bench. Even the courtroom benches are original, of utilitarian design softened by ornate cast-iron arm rests. The ceiling, worthy of a Victorian opera house, contains deeply paneled coffers, separated by richly molded plaster ribs which radiate out from a center circular coffer with an openwork plaster medallion. The ribs extend onto the walls and terminate in plaster foliate corbels.

Another Historical Perspective

North Carolina historian William S. Powell reluctantly was persuaded to write a history of Caswell County. In so doing, he fell in love with the county's heritage and people. Here are his thoughts on the Caswell County Courthouse:

This handsome building, constructed between 1858 and 1861 is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Architecturally it is considered one of the most distinctive courthouses in North Carolina. it is described as an eclectic Victorian structure with an unusually striking main facade dramatized by the recessed entrance porch on two levels, the brightly painted capitals of corn and tobacco, and the fine arched covrel course of the cornice. At a cost of about $28,000, it was completed in the year that the state seceded from the Union. Stone used in it was quarried about half a mile away and the bricks which it required were made near the quarry. Local legend, perhaps stimulated by the magnificance of the building, recounts that the builder went broke before the yard was filled in and the rear retaining wall constructed, and that he later committed suicide.

Originally an ornate cast iron fence from the Yarbrough Foundry enclosed the courthouse, but it was taken down during the first half of 1941 either to be repaired or reproduced. World War II began before the fence was ready to be erected again, and it was sold for scrap iron, deemed essential for the war effort. It also was in 1941 that the courthouse was extensively repaired and repainted as a WPA project. The ancient brown sandstone exterior was covered with grey paint. In 1953 the courtroom was severely damaged by fire, but skilled workmen were brought in from Atlanta to repair the delicate plaster decorations.




There are many stories to be told about the historic Caswell County Courthouse. Eventually, we hope to include most of them on this website. The above is just a beginning. If you have stories, photographs, anecdotes, or any other materials relating to the Courthouse that would be suitable for this website, please send them to the CCHA Webmaster.

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