One Man’s Trash and Another Man’s Treasure
Preservation, civic duty and the original Guilford County Courthouse
By Peter Freeman
Photographs by Amy Freeman
“Why do you have that ugly thing in your front yard?” It was the sort of ridicule Phil and Gloria Kennett had become accustomed to, along with, “I’ll gladly pay for a bulldozer, Phil.”
The year was 1987. The couple had just purchased a distinctive piece of property near the headwaters of the Deep River in Southwest Guilford County, an ideal spot in the country where they would build their dream house, just far away enough from the hurly-burly of town. There was just one “problem,” according to the previous owner, Mr. Hubie Stafford: an old, run-down structure perched prominently atop the hill on the fielded property surrounded by a variety of hardwoods. Though it may have held some historic significance, in Mr. Stafford’s view, the outbuilding was an eyesore that the Kennetts might just as soon forget. At first, Phil entertained notions of moving the derelict construction. But after listening to Mr. Stafford go on and on about how it had been hauled up the hill by a mule — Phil’s curiosity was piqued. Adding to his interest was an understated historic marker suggesting that the creaky old building may have been the original county courthouse.
Using the observation skills of a State College engineer, he concluded that the building had lost a portion of its lower structure, quite possibly in the move up the hill. In time, Phil and Gloria decided to relocate the outbuilding to where he reasoned its original resting place might have been. A block foundation was added. And turning a deaf ear to the scorn of family and friends, the Kennetts, on at least two occasions, paid to have the old structure wrapped in tarpaper and roofed with galvanized metal.
Although they had a pretty good hunch about its provenance and significance, Phil and Gloria solicited the expertise of others, including High Point and Guilford County Preservation groups. Preservation architects were hired to document the structure. Experts began to show various levels of interest in the building that served as a home and a travelers’ rest at an important area crossroad. The research revealed 18th-century construction techniques reminiscent of the European-inspired methods used in nearby Old Salem.
Since then local historian and writer Charles Rodenbough has untangled the story of the original Guilford County Courthouse. He has gone to great lengths to recreate the history, the chronicles and the characters associated with the building and its surroundings, weaving the story into the fabric and history of central North Carolina. In a feature, titled, “The Mystery of Martinville,” published in the March 2016 issue of Seasons flagship publication, O.Henry magazine, Rodenbough references the significance of the structure that had been the Robert Lindsay House.
Before taxes could be raised sufficient to the construction of the courthouse, the county court meetings were held in the house of Robert Lindsay on Deep River. When the Revolutionary War began, the courthouse was still under construction, so court continued to be held in the Lindsay house.
Rodenbough has since led the charge toward an eventual restoration effort. I wait with great anticipation for the arrival of his far-reaching chronicle of the edifice, the people and the significance to our history. Interest in the courthouse is at an all-time high owing to the dedication and hard work of many people. But it took the patience, perseverance, timing and luck — all hallmarks of good preservation detective work — especially on the part of Phil and Gloria, to keep a vital piece of North Carolina’s past alive. I am reminded of the words of John Belle, another important steward for preservation and the founding partner of the Beyer Blinder Belle. Belle’s and his New York City architecture firm specialize in restoring and preserving historic landmarks, including the Grand Central Station Terminal, the main building on Ellis Island and the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. “Preservation is one of the highest forms of good citizenship,” Belle once said — a distinction the Kennetts have earned in full measure. h
Peter Freeman is a practicing architect with an interest in preservation.