These days, people walking behind the Old Guilford County Court House at 301 W. Market St. in downtown Greensboro often just stop in their tracks and stare – and sometimes they whip out their phones and take a picture.
The particular item of interest that’s now drawing all the looky-loos is an intricate wall of scaffolding that completely covers the back of the building that serves as the center of Guilford County government. The new outer layer on the rear is part of a roughly $3.5 million project to restore the Old Court House to its former glory and beauty – and to keep chunks of it from falling on citizens.
Now that the scaffolding is up – and workers have access to every part of the back of the building – crews will repair the outer walls and trim, drill out old debris from crevices and inject new mortar, replace chipped edges and rotten banisters, galvanize cast iron supports, provide modern moisture protection and remove rotted out terracotta and replace it.
The project will also include the restoration and renovation of the entrance steps, repair of some of the concrete slabs next to West Market Street and the replacement of 33 doors, including the entrance doors.
The new doors will be more in keeping with the style of the Old Court House, which was built in 1918. For years, county officials have complained that the wood entrance doors aren’t appropriate for a historic building such as this one.
Part of the project will entail a thorough cleaning of the building’s exterior.
The restoration, beautification and structural enhancement project is expected to take over a year and isn’t expected to be completed until January 2019. The county plans to follow that with a landscaping project to give a fresh new look to the grounds around the building.
The scaffolding now on the back of the Old Court House will be in place for about nine months and then be moved to the front, where it will cover the entire face of the building until that work is complete.
The contract for the large undertaking was awarded to Greensboro-based J. Wayne Poole Inc. earlier this year. Jay Poole, who is overseeing the job, said the building should look a lot better in early 2019 – though, he cautioned, even with the massive repair and replacement effort and a thorough cleaning, it won’t look brand new.
“You’re looking at a 100 years worth of dirt and grime and it’s not all going to come off,” Poole said.
He said the project has presented a lot of interesting challenges. For instance, he said, putting up the scaffolding on the back of the building took a great deal of physical labor because the plaza behind the building can’t support the heavy machinery that would normally be used to move and lift the scaffold’s components.
Poole said it took his workers five weeks just to get the scaffolding up on the back of the building, but doing the same in the front of the building should only take about half as long.
“This was the harder side,” Poole said of the back, “because it won’t hold up a lift. In the front, we can use a forklift. In the back, the pieces all had to be physically handed up.”
Poole said a study of the building showed it needed a great deal of attention. There’s a lot of cracking, water damage, crumbling terracotta and other issues that have to be addressed.
“Most of the real damage is on the water table,” he said, referring to a flat surface area along the edge of the roof where water tends to collect.
Poole said parts of the building are totally deteriorated, and in some cases matching replacement parts are hard to come by. He said there are only two companies in the country that supply some of the materials used in the replacement process.
He said that Guilford County and his company are saving money by doing the back first and then using the same scaffolding on the front, rather than renting enough scaffolding for both sides at once.
One challenge in recent weeks has been that the work was going on while early voting took place at the courthouse. Poole said the real problem wasn’t working around the crowds – instead it was that, just about every time he or one of his crew walked around the corner, a campaign worker tried to hand them literature and get them to vote for a certain candidate.
“The fourth time that happened I had to tell them that I live in Summerfield,” Poole said.
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said the project hasn’t hindered early voting, but those voters – along with campaign workers and county staff – have had to negotiate the fencing and heavy machinery. Work vehicles and other equipment also sometimes take away the already limited parking around the courthouse.
One Guilford County employee who works in the building said the noise can be distracting, especially when jackhammers are in use.
On the positive side, Poole said Mother Nature has been fully cooperating in the first stage of the project.
“The weather has been good,” he said. “We’re allowed rain days and we haven’t taken one so far.”
Poole also said that, once it begins to turn cold, workers will put up a fabric “skin” over the scaffolding. Portable heaters will warm the area under it, which means crews will be able work more comfortably even when it’s snowing, raining or very cold outside.
Poole said this is one of the more interesting jobs his company has undertaken. He said the most noteworthy project his company has done was providing landline phone service to Bald Head Island in the ’80s. He said projects often take him far away from home, so it’s nice to be in Greensboro for a big job.
According to Poole, the fact that J. Wayne Poole Inc. is based in Greensboro benefited his company when it came to keeping the price below those out-of-town firms bidding on the project. Other companies would have greater transportation costs for workers and machinery.
Some county staff haven’t been pleased with the fact that the front of the Old Court House is now a big mess with lots of mud, tire tracks and some displaced sidewalk steps, but that’s what the project requires.
Poole said the City of Greensboro has worked well with his company during the project.
“The city had been really good,” he said.
“We’re not supposed to park in the bus lane but sometimes we have to,” he said.
Once the project is complete, Poole said, the old court house should be better than ever and firmed up with the latest version of the old construction materials.
“This is 100-year-old material,” he said of what’s being removed. “Now the materials are a thousand times better.”
When the project was first discussed in 2015, initial estimates for the Old Court House renovation project came in as high as $8 million, but it now looks as though it will be less than half that.
Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said this week that the cost of the scaffolding alone will come to about $200,000, and he added that other aspects of the job can be expensive as well since; for instance, the materials needed for historic renovation are often be in short supply.
McNiece said Guilford County was also now wrapping up other projects that have been in the works for some time. He said the county has finished with structural repairs on the parking deck behind the Independence Center at 400 W. Market St. and that a major repair of the parking deck next to the county’s High Point courthouse is largely complete.
“That one is structurally done but there are some cosmetic issues left,” McNiece said.
He said one of the most complicated things about the Old Court House job is that so many people in the company have the name J. Wayne Poole.
Poole said that are four J. Wayne Pooles in the company, but the “J” does stand for different names.
He said he’s not sure why his parents liked the name J. Wayne Poole so much.
“I guess they thought that, if they got a sweater with ‘JWP’ on it, they could keep passing it down,” Poole said.