The 180-year-old Lancaster County Courthouse, which had survived the Civil War and an 1886 earthquake, was reduced to its two-story brick shell by a Monday fire that authorities say was set deliberately.
Lancaster Fire Chief Chris Nunnery said the fire, reported at 5:25 a.m., was started after someone broke in through a first-floor window in the front of the courthouse. He said the fire started in a courtroom on the second floor and spread.
Nunnery declined to say whether investigators found accelerant. Flames burned through the building’s tongue and groove construction and reached quickly into the 18-foot ceilings.
Authorities don’t have a dollar amount of the damages but said the courthouse, a National Historic Landmark, is more than 50 percent damaged.The county had budgeted money to fix the windows and replace the courthouse’s slate roof this fiscal year.
“Now we have a lot more to do,” Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis said.
A $33 million referendum to build a new courthouse is on the November ballot. Officials said the courthouse was long overdue for replacement – it had only one courtroom and no modern security features.
Robert Mills, one of the first United States-born architects, designed the courthouse in 1828. He was among the first of his trade credited with incorporating fireproof materials in his buildings. His best known work is the Washington Monument.
A Civil War skirmish involving some of Union Gen. William Sherman’s troops took place near the courthouse in February 1865.
An earlier courthouse that stood at the site was reported to have been the location of the last witchcraft trial held in the United States, in 1813, according to local historians.
“If you care about history here in the Carolinas, and for that matter, this country, this is a huge tragedy,” said Lindsay Pettus, a local historian and saw the courthouse smoking on his way to work at 8:15 a.m.
Throughout the morning, crews from eight departments worked to douse the fire on the second floor; firefighters used protective tarps to salvage court documents on the first floor. They moved as many criminal files, veterans, civil and adoption records into the middle of a room as they could, Willis said.
State officials who preserve records will begin culling through them today to determine the extent of the damage. Nunnery said he believes firefighters salvaged about 80-85 percent of them.
It’s unclear whether authorities have a suspect or a motive.
A man suspected of throwing a Molotov cocktail into the building a couple years ago has died, Nunnery said.
General session court, which includes cases of violent crimes such as rape, robbery and assault, was scheduled to start Monday morning.
“I reckon your list of suspects could be long from that,” Nunnery said.
Agents from the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are joining Lancaster police in the investigation.
“The irony is that Sherman’s troops attempted to burn it, and it survived,” Pettus said. “And then the Charleston Earthquake of 1886. And now this, it just gives me a sick feeling.”
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