The courthouse in downtown Manchester is in need of a facelift.
The exterior of the building needs to be repaired. When it comes to the interior, the most pressing issue is the lack of a working public drinking fountain.
Additionally, the ceiling tiles must be replaced – there are several exposed areas with no ceiling tiles.
The building is used for trials, and the downstairs houses the offices of the Coffee County Historical Society, including a library, a media room, a meeting room, and the Joanna Lewis Museum of Coffee County History.
The courthouse is listed on the Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places and is “the literal and figurative heart of the county,” according to Beverly Vetter, office manager and librarian of the Coffee County Historical Society.
“The exterior of the building needs repair – not just paint but it needs to be repaired,” Vetter said. “The trim above the windows is metal and some of it is coming away from the brick, which leaves the brick vulnerable to weather.”
The biggest issue in the building is lack of working public drinking fountains downstairs.
“We do have the restrooms, but when the historical society is open, many people just come in downtown and they come to use the restroom, which is fine, but if they wanted to get a drink of water as well, there is no place for them to do that, and it’s really unkind,” Vetter said. “I don’t know how much water fountains cost, but I would imagine they are not dreadfully expensive. Having a place for someone to get a drink of water when they need water would be a help to quite a few people.”
The water fountain has not worked for years.
Coffee County is responsible for maintaining the building.
“Coffee County owns the building,” Vetter said. “It was built in 1872 after the previous courthouse had burned. It’s one of the few early Victorian Era courthouses that is still being used – it is still used as a county building. The county is very gracious to allow the historical society and the museum to have the downstairs.”
Court is held upstairs.
“It’s a working county building and it needs to be saved,” Vetter said. “Tt’s a symbol of Coffee County.”
Members of the historical society have approached the county with requests for help.
“We have asked the county in years past,” Vetter said. “We have been in front of (county committees) to discuss things with them, and they put in the new air conditioning system…But because of the age of the building, we can use some help with the other issues.”
Installing working fountains is not just about taking care of the building, it’s about taking care of the residents, added Vetter.
Ray Amos, who’s in charge of the media room of the historical society, addressed several other issues.
“The cupola on top needs to be repainted,” Amos said. “The doors need to be repaired – it’s very hard to open them. We have one lady that works here that can’t get in because she can’t open the door.”
Several holes expose the ceiling.
“The ceiling tiles need to be replaced,” Amos said.
Preserving the building is essential, said Vetter.
“The 1871 courthouse is one of the few Victorian Era courthouses still in use in Tennessee,” Vetter said. “In two years, this courthouse will celebrate one hundred and fifty years of service to Coffee County and its citizens.”
History of the courthouse
When Coffee County was established in 1836, Coffee County court set aside 200 acres of land with the intent to establish a centrally located seat of county business, and this original 200 acres became the City of Manchester, according to Vetter.
Until a proper building could be constructed, the County Court sat in the Baptist Meeting House. This log building near the present-day courthouse was in use until a brick courthouse and jail was completed in 1837.
The 1837 building stood until Dec. 28, 1870, when the courthouse burned.
“It is believed that the fire was the result of arson,” Vetter said. “Five days after the fire, on Jan. 2, 1871, the County Court met and made arrangements for the walls of the old courthouse to be torn down and for a new courthouse to be built on the same spot. This new building is the courthouse centered on the square in Manchester today.”
To pay for the building, the county court on Apr. 3, 1871, ordered that a tax of 50 cents per $100 of property be levied on all taxpayers of the county.
“Because some county records are missing, it is unknown the exact date of the completion of the courthouse, but county tradition says that it was finished in December 1871, just a year after the fire destroyed its predecessor,” Vetter said.