Blaze Destroys Historic Georgia Courthouse

Aug. 11--While firefighters dig through the charred remains of Hancock County's historic courthouse, county officials likely will soon be looking for office space to temporarily rent so county business can continue.

The courthouse, built in 1883, burned early Monday morning, leaving nothing but brick walls standing.

The building housed the county commissioners' office, Probate Court, Superior Court and the elections office.

Beth Brown, a spokeswoman for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the building was insured by the association and the insurance includes coverage for office space rental and recovering any files that might have been backed-up off site.

It's still unclear what records might have been lost.

Voting registration records are stored online and have not been affected, said Jared Thomas, spokesman for the Georgia secretary of state's office.

Rick Joslyn, president of the local historical association, said many court records were microfilmed in the 1950s and are stowed in the state archives.

Monday was set to be the beginning of a Superior Court trial week with more than 100 criminal cases on the court calendar, said Fred Bright, Ocmulgee Circuit district attorney.

Bright said his office keeps copies of each criminal indictment.

In regard to criminal records, "there's nothing we can't reconstruct," he said. "I don't envision anybody getting off ... because the courthouse burned."

Firefighters were called about 3:10 a.m. to the courthouse, which sits on a square inside a traffic circle in downtown Sparta. A passer-by who saw the fire called authorities.

By 9 a.m., they were still putting out "hot spots" and were preparing to begin investigating what might have caused the blaze, said Glenn Allen, a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office.

"They're going to have to wait on it to cool off so they can get in there," Allen said.

Allen said investigators also must examine the remaining brick walls to determine whether it's safe for crews to dig out debris as part of the investigation.

No one was injured in the fire and no firefighter were injured while fighting the fire, he said.

Volunteer firefighters were on the scene by 3:19 a.m., said Hancock sheriff's Investigator Ricky Brown. When Brown arrived, the structured was ablaze, leaving only the foundation and a brick facade.

The courthouse was one of 10 sites named to the Georgia Trust's 2013 Places in Peril list.

Built in 1883, the courthouse has suffered from a lack of funding for maintenance and preservation, leaving the building in a state of decline, according to the Georgia Trust.

Joslyn said several repairs have been made to the courthouse as recently as last week.

A crew was painting portions of the exterior and restoring some woodwork. The original clock on the clocktower had been restored.

A set of doors at the west entrance had just been restored and rehung. Another set from the east side

is off-site being worked on, he said.

"That's probably the only wood left," Joslyn said.

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