Early-morning light poured through the eastern windows into the upstairs courtroom of the Appling courthouse Wednesday, giving the heart-pine flooring a warm glow.
At 8 a.m., Columbia County Magistrate Judge J. Wade Padgett took the bench for the first court proceedings inside the newly renovated courthouse. He was robed and stately, seated beneath a highly polished plaque listing the county's dead in the Civil War and the two world wars.
"It was cool because I'd never been on that side," said Padgett, who also is an area lawyer and a former assistant district attorney. "I'd always tried cases and looked at those names of 'Our Dead.' When the judge would charge the jury, I'd be bored and I'd sit there and read all those names. I kind of looked back today and (thought), 'Dang, I'm up here. That's pretty cool.' "
Padgett, who was sworn in to office in the same courthouse, wasn't the only one marveling over the look of the newly renovated courthouse.
"I'm in awe of this," District Attorney Danny Craig said as he gazed around the courtroom at the new heart pine flooring, chandeliers and the no-longer pea-green decor.
The facility is considered Georgia's oldest continually operating courthouse, with a county engraving stating it opened in 1856 and others saying part of the building dates as far back at 1812.
The building was closed for a year for $900,000 worth of renovations, including the pine flooring, soft taupe paint, new shutters and chandeliers. The back entrance was reopened, and new energy-efficient windows were added.
After the face-lift, the courthouse was reopened and rededicated in November.
"It's been almost four years since we've been up here," Craig said, adding that the courtroom now has much more, and desperately needed, light. "It's a lot different than it was."
Padgett said he was honored to be the first judge to grace the courtroom bench since its reopening, but plans to hold Magistrate Court hearings there regularly.
"We're trying cases where it appears both parties live on that end of the county," Padgett said.
Since the courthouse represents Appling as the county seat, Judge Pat Hardaway said she's required to have an office there. But Hardaway, who also is an avid Columbia County historian, said she loves the renovation and the fact the only green left in the courtroom is on carpet runners and drapes.
"Isn't it gorgeous? It is beautiful," Hardaway said. "We've had enough green to last us for a while."
She plans to hold contested probate hearings in the Appling courthouse, but plans to keep traffic court in the Evans courthouse for security reasons. She's not the only one looking to use the historic building either.
Columbia County's Baord of Commissioners has made plans to meet at the courthouse quarterly, and Hardaway said Superior Court Judge Carl Brown has already scheduled the grand jury to convene at the courthouse later this month.
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