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HIGH POINT COURTHOUSE CHANGED LEGAL LANDSCAPE

HIGH POINT COURTHOUSE CHANGED LEGAL LANDSCAPE

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The building of a courthouse in downtown High Point in 1937 made history and changed Guilford County's legal landscape.It was the state's 101st courthouse, and it made Guilford the only county to have two courthouses. It was also the first courthouse in the country to hold Superior Court outside of a county seat.

The courthouse arose out of bickering between Greensboro and High Point, and controversy returned when High Point's newest courthouse opened in 1990.

At the turn of the century, High Point was in the midst of an unprecedented urban and industrial growth spurt that led to a doubling of the city's population by 1910, according to the book, ``A History of Guilford County, North Carolina' by Blackwell P. Robinson and Alexander R. Stoesen. The town grew from 4,163 residents in 1900 to 9,525 a decade later.

Many of the city's residents already felt High Point could stand apart from Greensboro. At the end of the year, the first effort to create a new county with High Point as its seat emerged.

The county was to be called Piedmont. Greensboro officials complained that, among other problems, the new county would reduce Guilford's political power in the state.

Protest was not limited to Greensboro, either. Many residents of Davidson County and Jamestown, parts of which would be included in the new county, said they were not interested.

State Sen. A.H. Boyden of Randolph County introduced a bill into the General Assembly to create the new county in 1911. The bill was defeated by 12 votes.

A similar effort to create a new county in 1913 - this time to be called Aycock County to honor former Gov. Charles B. Aycock - did not even make it to the House floor. North Carolina had 100 counties, a number that lawmakers were reluctant to change.

By this time, Guilford was begining to outgrow its courthouse. High Point residents were hopeful that a new courthouse would be built that would be convenient to residents of both municipalities.

To their dismay, planners opted to build the courthouse in Greensboro's downtown, in the 300 block of West Market Street.

High Point finally got its courthouse, the 101st in the state, in 1937, when the courthouse was built on the corner of South Main Street and Green Drive.

Architecturally, the old courthouse is noted for its art deco exterior and the three statues that keep watch over the main enterance. The statues celebrated the county's three main industries: Furniture, textiles and farming.

The old courthouse saw its fair share of history. In 1948, Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrat Party and Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party, both of them presidential candidates, campaigned from the courthouse steps.

The following year, Judge Susie Sharp of Reidsville held her first court session in High Point after becoming the first woman on the state's Superior Court bench.

The building opened in 1938 and served as High Point's courthouse until 1960, when another courthouse opened a few blocks away.

In 1998, Italian furniture-maker MAB purchased the old courthouse for $1.6 million and converted it into a showroom. It had been owned by the Wyatt, Early, Harris & Wheeler law firm since 1983.

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Controversy followed with the building of High Point's current jail/courthouse complex in the 500 block of Green Drive, which opened in 1990.

Early drawings consisted of an 82-bed jail and a 73,000-square-foot courthouse with three floors.

Architects predicted in 1984 it would take less than two years to build and cost about $12 million. It ended up taking more than four years and $36.7 million to complete.

The final result was a complex far from the original concept, with more than twice the jail space and a four-floor courthouse building.

The High Point courthouse has grown from a controversial building to a necessity, said Chief District Court Judge Lawrence McSwain.

A local courthouse ensures that High Point police won't have to drive all the way to Greensboro when prisoners go to court. ``That should free up the police to do their job,' he said. It also helps reduce the space required for Greensboro's overcrowded courthouse.

About a year ago, a Guilford County commissioner privately suggested to McSwain that the two courthouses be consolidated to conserve resources.

Not only would that be political suicide, McSwain said, it also would not make practical sense, because the Greensboro courthouse does not have the space to handle both Greensboro and High Point's business.

High Point currently handles about one third of the the county's legal workload, McSwain said.

Courthouse debate in Guilford County is not limited to High Point. Guilford County was once part of Orange and Rowan counties, but discontent over having to travel so far was largely responsible for Guilford's establishment in 1771.

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