Three courthouses in a lifetime
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
At one point in the early 1960s, Darlington had two courthouses sitting side by side: The new, cube-shaped one that was being built and the old, domed one that soon was slated for demolition.
Right now, we’re in a similar situation: We have the cube-shaped courthouse in the middle of the Square and the new courthouse that’s being built a short distance away.
The square courthouse won’t be torn down, but its court functions will be moved over to the new building and it will become the center for county government offices. The new building will bear the name DARLINGTON COUNTY COURTHOUSE; it’s not yet clear what the old one will be renamed.
Even after the existing courthouse stops holding court, it’s a good bet that many people will keep calling it “the courthouse” for a while.
It’s important to note that Darlington has had a whole series of courthouses over its history. The first was built in 1791 and burned in 1806. A second burned in 1866 and was replaced by a third courthouse around 1870. That one served until about 1904, when it was replaced by a fourth, the famous “domed” courthouse everyone has seen for decades on Blue Sky’s mural.
The one being built now apparently will be No. 5. Or, by various accounts, it might be No. 6, No. 7 or No. 8. When the News & Press did its Darlington County Bicentennial special edition in 1985, it counted the cube-shaped courthouse as the 7th.
Darlington County residents fondly remember the domed courthouse, and some feel that its loss marked a turning point in downtown Darlington’s architecture. Its final cost was said to be $45,000 plus $3,500 for the furniture. Judge J. Woodrow Lewis thought it was a lovely building, but unbearably hot in the summer.
It dominated the Public Square until about 1964, when it was replaced by the modernistic, cube-shaped courthouse – a design that many acclaimed as something fit for the Space Age, something looking ahead to a bright future, but that others just felt was lacking in Southern style and charm.
“It had an air of friendliness,” Judge Lewis said of the domed courthouse in 1985. “ … On the new (cube-shaped) one, people get on elevators and seem to disappear.”
The new courthouse, or judicial center, is going to feel more like the domed one than the cubed one when completed in the summer of 2023.
When Darlington County Administrator Charles Stewart showed renderings of the new judicial center to the Kiwanis Club in 2020, he explained: “This is one of the color schemes you will likely see, with columns and scrolls that kind of match what was on the old courthouse. In some semblance it’s new, and in some ways it’s a throwback to what was there before.”
The new courthouse, which sometimes has been referred to as a judicial center, is going to feel more “traditional” than the square courthouse, Stewart said in an interview with the News & Press. Clerk of Court Scott Suggs believes that it will feel more “cozy.”
“It’ll be more inviting than what we have now,” Suggs said. “It’s going to feel more like a courthouse than what we have now.”
The new building on North Main Street will be two stories, with about 44,000 total square feet of space. Entering from the first floor, the first thing visitors likely will notice is a large staircase reaching to the second floor.
Though not nearly as tall as the square courthouse, there will be elevators in the building. One will be for the public, Suggs said, while one will be for judges and another will be for inmates heading for court. That will help resolve complaints about lack of security in the square courthouse and will make sure that the public, the judges and the defendants are separated, Suggs said.
There will be four courtrooms, for circuit and family court, and the traffic in the new building will swell when court is in session, just as it does now in the square courthouse. The new building will have a security station at the entrance, just as the current courthouse does.