Historic Jackson County Courthouse and Libraries
The historic Jackson County Courthouse in Sylva, North Carolina, was built in 1913-14 and today houses the library, the Genealogical Society, the Historical Association, a gallery for the Arts Council, and a community event space. The building has been called, “the most photographed courthouse in [North Carolina].” Its history exemplifies many general trends among rural North Carolina courthouses, including being one of the best early examples of the popular Neo-Classical Revival architectural style. In addition, a Memorial Fountain (World Wars I and II) and a Confederate soldier statue stand along the 107 steps approaching the courthouse. The latter monument has recently become a subject of intense local debate; however, as of early August 2020, the county has committed to preserving the statue in its present location.
Backstory and Context
Jackson County, North Carolina, was established in 1851 with the town of Webster as its first county seat. A heated debate arose over relocating the courthouse around the same time Sylva (which, unlike Webster, was along the railroad) was incorporated in the late 1880s. Eventually, leading Sylva businessman C.J. Harris offered to build the courthouse for no more than $30,000, a third of which was paid by Sylva citizens’ donations. The move was approved by a referendum on May 8th, 1913. The architectural firm of Smith & Carrier was selected to design the courthouse, and it was built between August 1913 and March 1914, when it officially opened for business.
The courthouse and surrounding grounds were changed several times through the years. Pine trees that lined the stairs, planted in the 1940s, were cut down in 1969, the same year that the formerly red brick courthouse was painted white. It was painted pale yellow and bright green in 1997 but repainted white (with a green dome) in 2004-05. In 1994, the county government moved to a new building, and the Sheriff’s office occupied the building until 2003. It sat empty until 2009, when the county decided to use the building as part of its new library. A two-story, 20,000-square-foot addition was built to house the library itself, the courthouse was renovated, and a glass atrium was built to connect the two buildings. All of these improvements were completed in 2011.
The Confederate monument that stands along the courthouse steps was built by the W.H. Mullins Company of Salem, Ohio, and is almost identical to a statue in Asheboro, North Carolina. It was dedicated to the 164 Confederate soldiers from Jackson County, as well as their wives and mothers, in a ceremony on September 18th, 1915, that was attended by 3,000 people. The Memorial Fountain, at the base of the stairs, was begun in 1920 but not completed until 1949, when it was dedicated to the Jackson Countians who served in World War I and II.
The Jackson County Courthouse was one of the first “mature and assured” examples of the Neo-Classical Revival style that became widespread among North Carolina courthouses in the 1900s-1920s, between the ornate excesses of Victorian architecture and the simplified modernist trends of the late 1920s and onward. It also established Sylva as a destination along the new railroads and road systems; a courthouse “was the raison d’etre of the town” and “the political, social, and economic center of the county.” Though most courthouses were built in styles and locations chosen specifically to emphasize their importance and the distinction and purity of justice, none better exemplifies this stylistic ideal than the Jackson County Courthouse:
By placing the courthouse so as to block the view along the main roads leading into the county seat, the planners were able to create the impression that the traveler had arrived at the end of his journey, that this building was what the county's seat of government and justice was all about….
[T]he cupola, topped by a statue of Blind Justice, symbolizes the building's official function and is the expression of community identity as the commanding silhouette of the skyline.
The building’s strategic position overlooking the town and its classically-inspired design have made it a popular photo destination; it is varyingly described as “the most photographed building in Western North Carolina” and “the most photographed courthouse in [North Carolina].”[1; 7] Today, other than a tourist stop, the building is the location of the Jackson County Genealogical Society offices and library, the Jackson County Historical Association museum, and a community event space in the former courtroom; the atrium houses the Jackson County Arts Council gallery; and the library addition is home to the Sylva Branch (one of two in Jackson County) of the Fontana Regional Library System.
In recent years, the Confederate monument along the courthouse steps became increasingly controversial in the community. Debate over the statue escalated in the fall of 2017 as part of the reevaluation of Confederate memorials spurred by the death of Heather Heyer during the events surrounding the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Opposing sentiments and proposals ultimately deadlocked; however, the controversy resumed during the nationwide George Floyd protests in the spring and summer of 2020. Demonstrations in Sylva varied from protesting against racial inequality in general to specifically targeting the statue for removal. Others, especially the Sons of Confederate Veterans, stationed themselves around the monument to protect it. Both groups remained peaceful throughout repeated gatherings in May, June, July, and August. Local officials ultimately took notice of the competing movements. The Sylva Board of Commissioners voted on July 27th to ask the county to remove the monument. Just over a week later, and after hearing dozens of public comments over the preceding months, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners decided to keep the statue in its current location. However, they also ordered changes to the statue's base: the removal of the phrase "Heroes of the Confederacy" and the installation of a plaque detailing the county's Civil War history on top of an inscribed Confederate flag.
1) Burns, Brittney. The history of Jackson County’s old courthouse, The Western Carolinian. July 29th 2010. Accessed February 24th 2020. http://www.westerncarolinian.com/2010/07/29/the-history-of-jackson-countys-old-courthouse/.
2) Confederate Soldiers Monument, Sylva Jackson County Common Soldier Statue Sep 18, 1915, Documenting the American South: Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/275/.
3) County History, Jackson County North Carolina. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://www.jacksonnc.org/county-history.
4) Historic Courthouse Images, The Sylva Herald and Ruralite. June 2nd 2011. Accessed February 24th 2020. http://www.thesylvaherald.com/gallery/collection_3fc6c2ea-5c42-5a98-ac8b-941cbda5522f.html.
5) Historic Courthouse, Jackson County North Carolina. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://www.jacksonnc.org/historic-courthouse.
6) Jackson County Board of Commissioners decide to keep confederate monument in Sylva, but changes will be made, FOX Carolina. August 4th 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://www.foxcarolina.com/news/jackson-county-board-of-commissioners-decide-to-keep-confederate-monument-in-sylva-but-changes-will/article_059ddd82-d6cb-11ea-962d-77becc7bb471.html.
7) Jackson County Courthouse; Attractions; Home, Jackson County NC: Play On. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://www.discoverjacksonnc.com/attractions/jackson-county-courthouse/.
8) Jackson County Public Library - Sylva, NC; Jackson County; Our Libraries, Fontana Regional Library. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://fontanalib.org/sylva.
9) JCGS Library and research facilities, Jackson County Genealogical Society. Accessed February 24th 2020. http://www.jcgsnc.org/library-and-research-facilities.html.
10) Kays, Holly. Commissioners vote to keep Sylva Sam, with some changes, Smoky Mountain News. August 5th 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/29616-commissioners-vote-to-keep-sylva-sam-with-some-changes.
11) Kays, Holly. "Sylva Sam" draws debate at commissioner meeting, Smoky Mountain News. July 8th 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://www.smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/29415-sylva-sam-draws-debate-at-commissioner-meeting.
12) Kays, Holly. Sylva statue draws debate, Smoky Mountain News. September 6th 2017. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/20707-sylva-statue-draws-debate.
13) King, Kinberly. March on Sylva: People gather in support and opposition of removing Confederate monument, WLOS ABC 13 News. July 11th 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://wlos.com/news/local/march-on-sylva-people-gather-in-support-and-opposition-of-removing-confederate-monument.
14) Kracher, Frank. Town wants Jackson County to remove Sylva Sam, WLOS ABC 13 News. July 27th 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://wlos.com/news/local/town-wants-jackson-county-to-remove-sylva-sam.
15) Knoepp, Lilly. Sons Of Confederate Veterans Guard Confederate Statue During Sylva Vigil, Blue Ridge Public Radio. June 1st 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://www.bpr.org/post/sons-confederate-veterans-guard-confederate-statue-during-sylva-vigil#stream/0.
16) Lee, Mary Ann, and Joe Mobley. Courthouses in North Carolina; Jackson County Courthouse, National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form, North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (originally North Carolina Division of Archives and History). December 6th 1978. Accessed February 25th 2020. https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/JK0002.pdf.
17) McMillan Pazdan Smith Completes Historic Renovation of Jackson County Courthouse, McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture. September 14th 2011. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://www.mcmillanpazdansmith.com/in-the-news/mcmillan-pazdan-smith-completes-historic-renovation-of-jackson-county-courthouse.
18) Vaillancourt, Cory. Confederate memorials still a monumental issue, Smoky Mountain News. June 17th 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/29303-confederate-memorials-still-a-monumental-issue.
19) War Memorial Fountain, Sylva Jackson County Fountain Nov 11, 1949, Documenting the American South: Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/921/.
20) Welcome to our Town!; Facts; About Sylva, Sylva, NC. Accessed February 24th 2020. https://sylvanc.govoffice3.com/index.asp?SEC=EA052524-50E9-4DCA-B788-6CA4DB4E6935&Type=B_BASIC.
AbeEzekowitz/WikimediaCommons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Jackson_County_Courthouse.jpg (CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Public Domain: https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/nc_post/id/2595