County weighs options on historic building
Mississippi's highest judge called the Lauderdale County Courthouse "the worst courthouse in the state," after touring the historic building Friday morning.
"A lot of you may not realize, but in 1905, Meridian was the largest city in the state," Bill Waller, the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, told members of the Lauderdale County Bar Association at a luncheon Friday. "If you consider that when you walk into the courthouse, it's an absolute embarrassment,” he said.
"Think of a beautiful courthouse, like in Lafayette County. When it was built in the 1830s, there were three stores, a couple of saloons and 400 people living there,” Waller continued. “It was a huge investment for the county. They understood the importance of the courthouse. It symbolizes the rule of law.”
The Lauderdale County courthouse was built in 1905, and the third floor and jail were added during the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project. "Unfortunately, there's been little done since then," Waller said. "I don't think there's a wall that's watertight, or a window that works."
"Most of the walls will not even support a picture,” Waller said. "It's an absolute disgrace and embarrassment, there's no other way to put it."
"But it’s a wonderful example of the Art Deco style. If we can, we need to save it," he said. “If the large courtroom was done right, it would be one of the most spectacular courtrooms in the state," he said. "So the potential is there.”
Waller's comments come after a long history of complaints about the building. A recent Lauderdale County grand jury report called conditions at the jail and second and third floors of the courthouse “deplorable.”
The courthouse needs major renovations to its roofing, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems, according to retired Court of Appeals Judge Larry Roberts, a member of the courthouse renovation committee.
Meridian attorney Will Parker, who chairs the renovation committee, said he is planning to travel with county officials to Oxford next week to see how Lafayette County officials handled the renovation of the courthouse there.
Parker said the trip will involve meeting with officials from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to discuss possible grant funds to help restore the building.
“Our supervisors have been very receptive-they recognize that there is a problem,” he said. "I believe they're committed to doing something about it, but it's obviously a question of funding," he said. "And we want to help them with that as much as we can.”
The county plans to use about $4.2 million in bond money to fund a partial renovation of the courthouse.
“We’re going to do some research before we make any decisions,” Kyle Rutledge, president of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, said Friday.
Rutledge, who will join Parker and other officials on the Oxford trip, said, “it’s not just about building something, but seeing how other counties have paid for it, whether it’s grants or other things, so it just won’t come from local tax dollars.”
“I’ve already talked to numerous county administrators around the state about what they’ve done, because this is a bridge they’ve crossed before,” he said.
Rutledge said he would like the county to approach any improvements in phases over several years.
District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood said in September that he would like the county to buy the abandoned Kate Griffin Junior High School.
"I think the county should acquire that property, go ahead and demolish it, and build a nice administration building. Then they can go back to the courthouse and renovate it, floor by floor. You can move chancery, circuit, drug, justice and juvenile Courts — all the courts — into the new building.
"We need to move on this 16th section property and build a nicer administration building,” he said. “That's the Joe Norwood plan. I've heard some don't like that, but I think it is in the best interests of the county because it would redevelop that whole side of town."