Cindy Mason got everything just the way she wanted it - each computer in its most useful location and pictures placed perfectly on the walls.
Then the court clerk's worst nightmare came true.
"Thank God it was confined to a closed-in room where the sprinkler head burst," Mason said of the water that came within a foot of the court's records. "It was awful to walk up the staircase and see water running out the front door and know you are responsible for all these things.
"I laughed about that - I said I would throw my body in front of the water and the records if the water came any closer."
The clerk's office was the last to move into the new Justice Center and Courthouse Annex on Ronald Reagan Drive last summer. Only months later, a sprinkler head broke, spraying water into a closed break room in the center of the office and the first floor of the new courthouse in Evans.
The flood of water spread into most offices on the first floor less than a week before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy would arrive to dedicate the state's newest courthouse Aug. 30, 2002.
Despite the watery beginning, the new courthouse survived to its one-year anniversary mark, and county officials say the facility is living up to expectations.
"I think everything came together toward the end of the project," said Ron Cross, the chairman of Columbia County's Board of Commissioners. "We had a real good stretch there where the Court of Appeals met there. We got some real nice letters from the Court of Appeals judges. The grand jury has met there for their latest term. Overall, everything has worked out good."
Construction began on the 69,000-square-foot courthouse in February 2000. The nearly $14 million facility houses four courtrooms; four hearing rooms; a grand-jury room; probate, juvenile and magistrate courts; the court clerk's office; judges chambers; and several offices.
Like Mason's office, Probate Judge Pat Hardaway's former office in Appling restricted new hires despite work demands, but her transition was easier.
"We sat on top of each other for years," she said. "You couldn't add additional employees because you had nowhere to put them. No matter what the workload was, you couldn't have any more people. Now, we have a lot more space. It was not a difficult move for us at all. It has really worked well."
Rather than let the former courthouse fall into disrepair, the county will renovate the building in Appling..
With only a few county employees and offices - including one for Mason and another for Hardaway - the Appling courthouse, built in 1856, will be renovated to keep it one of Georgia's oldest functioning courthouses.
Officials plan to revamp the courthouse while keeping its original structure, said Kevin Lear, the county's construction and maintenance services director. He said that a request for proposals from architects will be sent out for the $500,000 worth of work to be done to the Appling courthouse.
The Appling courthouse is closed while county crews repaint, carpet and refurbish windows frames and doors around the building. The roof was replaced recently.
The project also will include work on the building's exterior, including tuck-pointing the outside brick.
"Everything we do is going to keep in mind the historic look of the building," Lear said. "We have to put it pretty much the way it was as far as fixing doors and windows, the paint, the repairs that are done. We really can't jeopardize the look. We want to keep that the way it was. You may see some work being done on the outside, but a lot of it won't be really plain for the public to see."
Lear estimated the renovations will be completed by next summer.
To remain as the county seat, the county must maintain a probate judge's office in Appling, said Hardaway, who was the first to move into the new building in time for the first probate court session July 31.
"We love it. I think the people do, I think the citizens appreciate it. I live this office. It is really a nice facility," Hardaway said. "We are so proud of it."
Court also must be held at the county seat twice a year to keep county-seat designation, Cross said. When the renovations are done, the Board of Commissioners will hold their first meeting of the month or quarter in Appling.
Despite the historical value of the old courthouse, many officials say they are pleased with the new one.
"Big challenges, and we have managed to conquer all of them. It is wonderful," said Mason of the office that gave all her employees ample room. "We do appreciate it. I pinch myself every morning because I am sure there are counties that would love to have this and probably need it but haven't go to that point yet. I am glad we are there."
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