After years of talk and little action, Swain County is moving forward with a long-held dream to turn its iconic, domed courthouse into a cultural history museum and visitors center.
The architectural centerpiece of town, the old courthouse has been mostly empty for three decades since court functions moved out in the 1929s, aside from housing a senior center that has since relocated.
“We’ve had this vision for a long time,” said Ken Mills, executive director of economic development.
The county has seriously discussed such a transformation since 2009, though the idea was tossed around for years prior to that. In that time, Mills has not heard a derogatory comment about the county’s plans.
“We have never had anyone say it was a bad project, a useless project,” Mills said.
The cost of renovations is estimated at $750,000. But, by using some of its own building and maintenance employees to do some of the work, the county hopes to reduce the overall price tag, Mills said.
The county has taken out a $600,000 loan for the project. Another $100,000 is being kicked in by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, which will run a bookstore in the museum. The non-profit functions as a support arm for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, operating bookstores inside the park selling everything from guidebooks and maps to souvenirs.
The Swain County Chamber of Commerce will move at least part of its visitor center operations into the old courthouse. The chamber is not sure yet how much of its operations will move into the refinished courthouse, said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County chamber.
“We support this project. We very much look forward to this building being renovated,” she added.
Employees from the chamber and the Great Smoky Mountains Association will help man the center.
Several years ago, the county undertook a three-year planning process to identify what stories should be highlighted in such a museum. In addition to the natural and cultural heritage of Swain County, the museum will include the history of the national park, a major drawing card for tourists traveling to the region.
“The park’s history is our history,” Mills said.
The county has also reached out to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to see if they would be interested in being included in the museum exhibits.
The old building, located at the corner of Everett and Main streets, will also offer people access to public restrooms, which could provide crucial for downtown event attendees throughout the year.
Most of the estimated project cost will pay for renovating the second floor, which needs considerably more attention than the first floor.
The entrance level was redone in the 1980s and features up-to-date fixtures and molding. One of the few original parts of the building, which was erected in the 1920s, is its outward appearance.
“We’re not really sure how much we will be able to restore,” Mills said. “But, most of the things we have saved we’re going to try to keep and somehow put back in here.”
For example, the county saved the original seating from the upstairs courtroom but was unable to restore stamped tiles that decorated the ceiling.
In simply preparing for the renovation, county workers have uncovered several hidden elements of the old courthouse. At some point in its long history, the county decided to drop the ceiling level in the courtroom, concealing a number of small windows at the top of the walls.
In the past, unfortunate souls who found themselves face-to-face with the county judge could look up, through a window in the ceiling to a still functioning bell that crowns the old courthouse. Somewhere along the way, however, the windowpanes were painted white, depriving people of the view.
The main visible changes to the first floor will include new furniture and a long wooden counter where someone will greet and aid visitors, and vignettes painted on the walls, similar to those at the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the park entrance outside Cherokee.
The upstairs portion, which will serve as the museum, is quite a different story. With some missing windows, no ceiling beyond wooden beams and a concrete floor that failed the pounds-per-square-inch test, the second floor will need the most renovation.
“We are going to end up redoing this whole upstairs,” Mills said.
The upper level once served as the courtroom and could in the future include artifacts such as the shell of a log cabin, showing how the people of Swain County once lived.
Several county residents have already offered to display their family artifacts in the museum.
Once construction begins, the renovations will take two years.
“We are hoping to get started soon,” Mills said.
Mills said the new visitor center and museum will hopefully draw more people, or rather potential customers, to the town.
In addition to renovating the building, the county plans to construct a parking lot behind the building that could be accessed via Main Street. Currently, the gravel-covered lot sits empty.
Mills said he did not know how much the lot would cost, but it has not been figured into the estimated renovation costs.
The county is also looking into put a small park next to the lot, where people can just sit or have lunch.
“We are hoping to have nice green space out there,” Mills said.