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NC's Tallest Courthouse Turns 75!

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From the Asheville Citizen-Times (12/02/03)


By Jennifer Brevorka, STAFF WRITER

ASHEVILLE - It has witnessed shootings and weddings, political celebrations and charity food drives.

For 75 years, the Buncombe County Courthouse has seen government leaders and criminals come and go, while newlyweds and the newly widowed filled out paperwork side-by- side in it's offices.

At a birthday celebration today, people will gather at the courthouse to remember what made the granite structure more than just a county office.

"It was probably the most important building in town," said former District Court Judge William Styles, who worked as an elevator operator in the building during the late 1930s. "It was the central point in the county and the central business place."

When the 17-story structure opened in 1928, it housed the county health department, courtrooms, attorney's offices, the sheriff's department, the county jail and county administration offices.

Residents could pick up everything from rabies shots to marriage licenses at the courthouse. Farmers learned how to sign their names during literacy drives, while unemployed workers collected government rations in the courthouse basement during the Great Depression.

"It really is a people's courthouse," said Doris Giezentanner, a former county commissioner. "So much has changed over the past years as the county has continued to grow. But that building has always remained a centerpiece of downtown."

It was built amid drama and debate.

When Asheville city officials approached county commissioners in the early 1920s, they proposed building two matching art deco structures. One building would house city hall, the other would be the county courthouse. The result would be a government complex of striking originality, according to newspaper accounts from the time.

But when drawing up plans, no architect had considered the rivalry between Mayor John Cathey and E.M. Lyda, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Both men were political warriors with egos and personalities that clashed.

"There wasn't much the city and county agreed on," said historian Bob Terrell. "When county officials thought the city fathers were moving too fast in planning city hall, they pulled out of the agreement and hired another architect."

In 1927, the county began building the courthouse. The building's $2 million price tag so infuriated county residents that it cost three county commissioners their jobs, according to local historians.

"People were upset by the cost. They thought it was too extravagant, and they voted them out of office" said JoAnn Morgan, who has worked in the register of deeds office for 25 years. "The same thing happened when we built the new detention center. People thought that was expensive, too."

While change often came at the hands of politicians, courtroom drama also sparked innovation.

In 1994, a man shot himself in the head during a court appearance. The shooting prompted commissioners to implement a courthouse security plan that required the installation of metal detectors. It also forced the courthouse's front door to be used only as an exit. The plan was hotly debated and it infuriated some residents, who felt the front door should have remained open.

"It was traumatic," said Morgan. "The increased security changed the atmosphere for those at work and those coming into the courthouse."

County employees will celebrate the courthouse's past in hopes that people will always remember the building's significance.

"It's just an interesting place to come and work everyday," said Register of Deeds Otto DeBruhl, who has worked in the courthouse for more than 25 years. "You always have people around you that you can help."

Contact Brevorka at 232-2938 or [email protected]


hauntedheadnc sez, "This is a great building, and the contrast it provides to the exuberant Art Deco Asheville City Building is jarring yet strangely attractive. The Buncombe County Courthouse, a stern neoclassical high-rise, has been described in one travel guide as looking like "Clark Kent's Daily Planet Buliding," and in another as "the stern mother forever hissing, 'Stop that!' to the giddy City Hall forever sticking its tongue out in return." Gotta love it!"

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