Courthouse fire could have been a lot worse

Flames broke out while historic antebellum building was staffed

The historic Rappahannock County Courthouse, built in 1834, has arguably dodged a bullet.

“There were flames going up the wall,” said court clerk Patricia Davis, who pointed out it was a good thing last week’s electrical fire broke out on a weekday afternoon when employees were at work, or else “who knows” what the result could have been.

As it was, an alert courthouse staffer in the office next to Davis’ grabbed a fire extinguisher and smothered the flames before Washington Volunteer Fire & Rescue arrived. It wasn’t a wasted run for the firemen, however, as a second fire broke out.

Permanent burn marks are still visible following the clean up and restoration resulting from two fires last week at the Rappahannock County Courthouse. Photo by John McCaslin

Just five months ago the Rappahannock News reported: “The electrical system in the courthouse is so antiquated that before employees can heat food in their small microwave oven they first have to turn off the lights in two adjacent offices or else it will kick the breaker.”

But in this case, said interim county administrator Brenda Garton, the fire “did not trip the breaker.”

“Further, a second fire started almost immediately after the first one was extinguished,” Garton revealed.

As a result, the administrator authorized an “emergency procurement” for an electrician to perform an immediate assessment of the wiring in the courthouse, based not only “on concerns about the electrical wiring in the building [but] in order to preserve both the safe use of the courthouse by staff and citizens . . . and to ensure the safety of the historic structure.”

The procurement also paid for a restoration company to clean-up and restore the damaged wall.

The fire in Davis’ office broke out behind an electrical outlet situated between a desk and bookshelf. The affected wall is also the façade of the courthouse, which overlooks Gay Street.

The original walls of the courthouse are so old they are said to contain horsehair, Davis added. It was common during the time the courthouse was built, and even decades later, for plaster mixtures to contain animal hair as a binder.

Most if not all of the county’s historic 19th century brick structures — from the antebellum courthouse to the numerous small brick office buildings on either side of it — are in need of considerable updating and repair, if not extensive restoration. Nobody is more aware of that than the five Rappahannock County supervisors.

During a building tour earlier this year, which the Rappahannock News participated in, the supervisors saw first hand peeling paint, rotting window sills, roof deterioration, and damage due to water infiltration, all clearly visible both inside and outside most of the courthouse row buildings, including the courthouse.

“It was Niagara Falls in here this morning,” a courthouse staffer told the supervisors during their tour as they sloshed through her office. Towels covered the windowsill next to the employee’s desk, where rainwater had “poured in” through rotted wood. Somebody had tried to adhere sealing tape over broken windowpanes above her desk, to no avail.

As a result, supervisors John Lesinski and Ron Frazier, along with state preservation experts and county building professionals, convened as a task force this past July and kicked off a day of building tours and discussion about how to address the maintenance issues.

Washington resident and historian Alan Comp, nationally recognized for such recovery work, led the session and agreed to prepare a preliminary report to the BOS, which was presented this month.

Comp recruited for the Rappahannock County Historic Buildings Task Force Hugh Miller, the first director of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources (DHR). A registered architect, Miller has worked for 40 years as a historical architect, preservation planner and teacher.

At the meeting, Comp called Miller “a godlike figure in historic preservation.”

Also on the task force was architectural historian David Edwards, director of the DHR’s Community Services Division and co-author of “Buildings of Virginia: Valley, Piedmont, Southside, and Southwest,” published by the University of Virginia Press.

Local presence on the task force included retired custom home builder Peter Kreyling; Racer Construction LLC owner Jim Racer; architect Jay Monroe; developer/contractor Kees Dutilh, and county maintenance supervisor Ricky Jenkins.

After a morning tour of the buildings, the task force spent the afternoon discussing their findings and observations, in hopes of helping the county set priorities for repairing the buildings and tap potential funding sources.

In his preliminary report to the BOS on Sept. 6, Comp not only presented findings and recommendations for repairing and maintaining the county’s buildings, he suggested the county-owned white church on Gay Street housing the RAAC Community Theatre be sold, with proceeds used for repairing the historic structures.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at