The courthouse’s fate . . . and an old ash tray

By Bobby Bryant, Editor,

I have this black ash tray.

It must have been made in the mid-1960s, when smoking still was cool, and when cities and counties promoted themselves by putting images of prominent buildings on ash trays, because it was, well, cool.

This ash tray is wide and flat. At the top is an image of the Darlington City Hall. At the bottom is an image of the Darlington County Courthouse. In the middle is a line of text reading BEST CITY DARLINGTON, S.C. BEST COUNTY.

The courthouse must have been new, or almost new, when that ash tray was manufactured. The building was finished in 1964 and opened for business in 1965. It was (and still is) a fairly simple square design, with oval entrances at the bottom.

It was the tallest, biggest building I’d ever seen except on television. I was also new, or almost new, maybe 4 years old.

One of my relatives – I’m thinking my great-aunt Mildred Odom Clifton – worked there for a while in some capacity, and I still have this vague memory of staring down on Darlington from the fourth or fifth floor of the courthouse, with the Public Square spread out like a toy box, cars rolling down the street like miniature Hot Wheels racers on a plastic track.

The courthouse was exciting. It had ELEVATORS. It was full of people humming along at their jobs. It was a place with purpose, a place where things got done and would get done for many decades to come, because that giant square building wasn’t going anywhere.

Now it could be going into a huge pile of demolition debris. Or not.

In November, Darlington County residents will vote on a referendum that would OK a 1 percent sales-tax increase to pay for construction of a new courthouse and administration facility.

Presumably in the city of Darlington, the county seat. Or maybe farther out in the county, closer to where the magnetic pull of business-abuzzing Hartsville is stronger? Or maybe in the city of Hartsville itself? You’d need to change state laws . . .

If the referendum is voted down Nov. 6, the courthouse might continue to stand (with renovations) for a long time, even though nearly everyone now considers it outdated, outmoded, unable to provide the security that criminal trials need and so overcrowded that people visiting to do business with county agencies hang out in the halls while they wait for others to be served.

“That building over there, it’s in foul shape,” says one county official.
But the current courthouse, the giant cube, represented a vision of tomorrow at the time it was built, says Brian Gandy, director of the Darlington Historical Commission.

“It showed a push for the future,” he says. “It was seen as progress, a symbol of a brighter day.”

Many in Darlington were proud of the new, “modernistic” courthouse in the 1960s, Gandy says. Except for some who missed the “Old South” feel of the previous courthouse, the one you can see in artist Blue Sky’s Darlington mural.

­When it first went up in ’64, the “big cube” was like a glimpse of a new frontier: Tomorrowland, NASA, the jet age and color televisions. Right here in Darlington. And the town was so proud, they even put it on an ash tray. Now, is it going to be snuffed?

Author: Rachel Howell

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