A Draft in Chambers

The Old Courthouse's need for weather-proof windows raises debate over restoration vs. replacement

Knox County's Old Courthouse is a problematic gem, and most of its problems stem from irreconcilable generations of Knoxvillians and their ways of thinking. The spectacular 19th century interior woodwork and marble have been sacrificed to security and a distracting array of metal detection gear and lunchroom tables. (The materials have not been damaged, just obscured.) It's almost impossible to see the courthouse from outside without also seeing the City County Building or the federal courthouse/Whittle Building in the same frame, either of which make the courthouse seem kind of like some keepsake bauble.

The charms and challenges of a working, 124 year-old public building have been underscored of late, as the Public Building Authority has attempted to find ways to fit the courthouse with modern windows. The original building, facing Main Street, dates from 1885 (the wing that extends perpendicularly behind, toward the river, was added in 1919) and some of the windows are original. Some windows have been replaced, and date from as recently as the 1950s.

In addition to energy savings and keeping the elements at bay, one attraction to a replacement of every window would be continuity of style throughout. The problem, of course, is cost. The style and age of the windows and the nature of the work—more of the curatorial/surgical sort than simple knock-out-nail-in—put a price tag on the project of over a million dollars. Jayne Burritt, PBA's director of property management, says that's not within reach at the moment.

"Funding is an issue," says Burritt. "This project has been considered necessary and has been discussed for a couple years. Some of the windows are as old as the building and simply do not seal. What happened recently is that we were approached by a vendor who makes metal-clad windows in historical styles."

According to Nic Arning, who's been on the Historic Zoning Commission for 20 years, the proposed replacement windows did not match the originals aesthetically. He insists that the original windows are repairable. And each window replaced was going to cost over $4,000. Burritt says one reason for the high price tag is that the original windows would be extracted by methods that would preserve them and allow them to be reused.

Ann Bennett is a senior planner at the Knoxville/Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission, and the focus of her work there is historic preservation.

"They're one-over-one, double-hung sash windows with a stained-glass arched transom," she says. "There needs to be work done. PBA has approached the Historic Zoning Commission with proposals from two different contractors and windows from two different vendors."

Arning says that neither of the clad replacement windows proposed by PBA match the originals.

"I admit that I'm a building hugger," says Arning. "The courthouse is on the national register, and we don't have too many of those. I think that old courthouse is built better than the City County Building and will be standing longer than the City County Building. If any other property owner in an H-1 historic overlay zone proposed to the commission that they were going to replace their windows with new metal windows so different from the originals, we would not allow it. We would force them to repair the originals.

"I have asked for an estimate of the cost of repairing the original windows, but I have not received one."

For the time being, Burritt says the issue is off the table and unfunded. That may give Arning and those who share his high opinion of the original courthouse windows time to build a case for restoration over replacement.