Overlooking Main Street in the town of Sylva is the Historic Jackson County Courthouse. This iconic landmark is a staple of North Carolina architecture, and with the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains as the backdrop, it’s known as the most photographed courthouse in the state. Though it’s technically no longer a courthouse, this symbol of Jackson County is now home to the Jackson County Public Library, Jackson County Historical Association and History Museum, Genealogical Society, and Jackson County Arts Council and is a center for local performances and lectures. Almost a forgotten piece of history with its future in jeopardy, this structure was once vacant without a purpose after serving as the county courthouse for over 80 years until the leadership of county officials, volunteers, and community advocates, realized its potential and modernized it into an interactive piece of Jackson County History that it is today.
Why Was the Courthouse Built?
Sylva is now a thriving town in the heart of Jackson County, currently serving as the county seat, but it was not always the central hub for residents and visitors. From 1853 until 1913, the small village of Webster, located between Sylva and Cullowhee, was the county seat. However, its location presented challenges for growth as it was three miles from the railroad. This gave a local entrepreneur and titan of industry C. J. Harris a vested interest in moving the county seat from Webster to Sylva. Fueled by Harris, the county took a vote and decided in May of 1913 to move to Sylva.
Sylva was the ideal location for this move, with its growing economy and convenient access to the railroad for investment opportunities. With the move approved, there was a need for a courthouse, which an eager C. J. Harris was happy to fulfill. He accepted the contract for the courthouse construction, which began promptly after approval.
Construction of the Courthouse
In 1913, downtown Sylva looked quite different than it does today. For instance, the small unpaved road was lined with residential homes as opposed to the businesses that you see today. The site selected for the build, donated by C. J. Harris and Marcellus Buchanan, was a parcel at the end of Main Street overlooking the town, located on what is now Keener Street. The contract for the structure was approved for $30,000, equivalent to about $900,000 in today’s money – a bargain by modern standards! Two-thirds of the funding came from the county and one-third from the town, with Harris slated to pay the architect fee of $1,000 – just shy of $30,000 in today’s money.
The Jackson County Courthouse style was echoed after a Classical Revival with large stately pillars at the front. The red brick construction was meant to resemble the Madison County Courthouse in nearby Marshall, NC. The top of the building contains a 16-ton cupola with a working clock and Lady Justice overlooking Sylva and the surrounding mountains. Construction took only ten months, and the courthouse initially housed the Register of Deeds, the Clerk of Superior Court, Treasurer, Sheriff’s Office, County Commissioner’s room, Board of Education, and jail.
Forgotten Piece of History
The historic courthouse served as the county’s administrative building until 1994, when the new Justice Center was built on Grindstaff Cover Road. The Sheriff’s office remained there until 2003, when it became vacant. There were many discussions among county leaders as to what the future of the old courthouse was going to be, and as its aging construction was beginning to deteriorate, they found an opportunity.
County leaders began discussing the expansion of the library in 1996. The old library was in what is now the Sylva Police Department next to the Jackson County Chamber and Visitors Center, a stone’s throw away from the courthouse. Proposals for a new library ranged from expanding the old library, which would mean demolishing the historic Hooper House, to a combined library with Southwestern Community College. In 2006, County Commissioners discussed the proposal for turning the vacant courthouse into the new Jackson County Public Library. On October 1, 2007, the proposal was approved, giving the historic structure, quite literally, a new lease on life.
The Courthouse Today
The addition of the library and repairs to the old structure totaled around $7.4 million, and in 2011, the courthouse reopened its doors to the public with a new 26,000-square-foot library complex. The now fully ADA-accessible structure is complete with a combination of both modern and classic touches. In the historic building, you’ll find a community room with 200 seats and a balcony view of Sylva, which is a center for local lectures and performances. Additionally, the Jackson County Genealogical Society, History Museum, and Jackson County Arts Council are housed there, paying tribute to the history of the building.
The new two-story library addition has lovely outdoor spaces to relax and enjoy the cool mountain weather. First and second-story balconies complete with rocking chairs give visitors the perfect place to relax with a good book overlooking the scenic backdrop of the surrounding Smoky Mountains.
This now revered building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a must-see structure when visiting western North Carolina. What was almost a forgotten piece of history now serves as a symbol for both the state and the county. “Courthouse Hill” still towers over Sylva’s Main Street, and with the work of dedicated volunteers, county leaders, and residents, it will remain this way for years to come. Make sure to stop in when you visit! The building opens Monday – Saturday at 9 a.m.
Header Image Courtesy of Hunter Library, Wester Carolina University