Morgan courthouse was more than just another pretty face

August 13, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

Thirty-two years ago this month the phone rang in our Morgan County, W.Va., home at 4 in the morning. A panicked voice asked if we were the South Morgan Fire Co. We said, "No, we ar..." and the line went dead.

On this incomplete intelligence we knew something was up, but it wasn't until the next morning when we saw, on our way home from church, the magnitude of the situation.

What the day before had been the grand old Hotel Washington on town square lay in a smolder of toppled brick and charred timber. An entire block of history was lost, along with 14 lives.

Berkeley Springs was still an unknown backwater then, so the crowds of city folk who now find Berkeley Springs so charming and trendy never knew the Hotel Washington with its wide verandahs and tall, squared-off spire.


After the fire in 1974, the job of signature architectural structure in the downtown fell to the yellow brick and limestone courthouse with the unique, metal clocktower, just across Fairfax Street from the hotel. It was impossible to overstate how much this temple of justice meant to the identity of the town, the rest of which is largely quaint, but nondescript.

Then, this week, fire claimed this icon as well.

This column doesn't have a point, a lesson or a moral. Just sadness. If a building can ever be something of a father figure to a boy, the courthouse was one to me. It would always watch as I played in the park across the street. Wherever I roamed, it would be there when I returned, a patient and understanding landmark.

Since I never owned a watch in my life I depended on the clock tower, loosely, to know when it was time to catch my ride home. I can say with confidence that the clocks, one on each of the tower's four sides, were almost always within a half-hour of the actual time. Like many families, these four related clocks could never agree on anything, most notably the time - you just kind of had to take each clock's opinion and then calculate the average.

Curiously, I never thought that much of the building's aesthetics at the time. The tower was capped by a tin helmet that hung down low over the round clocks, like it was too big for the medieval warrior it was protecting. And, understanding reality as only boys can understand it, I knew brick was supposed to be red, not yellow.

And the interior held disappointment as well. Our junior civics class went there for a field trip to watch a civil trial in action, featuring a square-off of two of the Eastern Panhandle's most celebrated attorneys.

What I saw more resembled a bad high school play. My fault for expecting Perry Mason.

But perhaps a year ago, sitting in the state park, I noticed the courthouse again for the first time. Or the first time, at least, since I had come to have something of an understanding of architectural beauty. I bet I stared at it for an hour, realizing that this was not the town's landmark, this was the town's soul.

I have no clue were Berkeley Springs goes from here. The Hotel Washington was replaced by a shoebox bank and gift shop that are fine for what they are, but sit small and alone in the Hotel Washington block, which spends most of its time and space as a gravel parking lot.

Berkeley has weathered one largely vacant lot on its square, but it cannot handle two. Tourists will start to ask themselves, why did we think this place had charm?

Yet the town did not rise to the top of the list of small art towns in America without a substantial storehouse of human talent in tow, and those leaders - public and private - will be facing their greatest challenge to date.

I hope they can do more than simply build another modern/boxy courthouse, because just another courthouse will not be the same. If past architectural generations have had their Victorian period and Georgian period and Neoclassic period, our architecture today will be known to future generations as the Cutting Corners period.

It would be nice it we could rebuild in the name of conscience, not in the name of the lowest bid - not just in Berkeley Springs, but everywhere. All it takes is a look to turn-of-the-(last)-century banks, apartments, schools, department stores, office buildings and even warehouses to see how far we've fallen.

Cost savings is best for pens and copier paper; buildings can last for centuries. A little investment in style today can still pay dividends a hundred years hence, making citizens feel good about civilization.

When thought is paid to aesthetics, people notice, and it has an effect. I came to The Herald-Mail, in part, because the unique building told me the corporate owners had spirit - a sense of awareness and a sense of style.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin was johnny-on-the-spot following the courthouse fire, leading us to hope that he understands the consequences as well. It may not be necessary to build a replica of the old courthouse, but whatever goes up there should make a statement for the benefit of the town and the people, now and tomorrow.

How nice it would be if, a century from now, a small boy could look at a grand work of dignity and know for that as long as it stood, he would have a home.

Tim Rowland's weekly podcast can be heard at

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