The White County Courthouse, from County Lines Magazine

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Among the many programs and services of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program is the County Courthouse Restoration Grant Program. Created in 1989, this grant program has helped to extend the lives of courthouses that hold vital links to community pride and local history. These grants are funded through the Real Estate Transfer Tax, administered by the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council. Since the beginning of the program, the AHPP has awarded more than $18.6 million to 69 historic courthouses and courthouse annexes around the state for use in rehabilitating, preserving and protecting these important historic resources. Since 1991, White County has received 10 grants totaling $293,204 for the White County Courthouse.

(The featured article below ran in the Winter 2015 issue of the quarterly publication of the Association of Arkansas Counties – County Lines. Companion articles about historic courthouses will be a regular feature in future issues. Read more about the history of White County and this remarkable building.)

The stately White County Courthouse in Searcy stands today as one of the finest examples of a Classical Revival-style public building in Arkansas. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and White County have worked together for nearly 25 years to preserve the building and make it accessible to all of the county’s constituents. Since 1991, White County has received $293,204 through the AHPP’s County Courthouse Restoration Grant program for restoration work on the landmark building, in addition to another grant to prepare the old Searcy Post Office to serve as a courthouse annex (see sidebar).

When Arkansas’s territorial General Assembly created White County on October 23, 1835, it decreed that “until the seat of justice shall be located, the temporary seat shall be and the courts shall be held at the home of David Crise near the White Sulphur Springs,” now the site of Oak Grove Cemetery. A five-man commission was established to select a permanent county seat, and in 1839 Crawford Walker donated 10 acres of land to them, which was sold to finance a one-story log building just southwest of the current courthouse. White County’s first permanent courthouse, with its furnishings, cost only $138.50. Interestingly, the original donation became embroiled in a kerfuffle involving land grants to veterans of the War of 1812 that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, making White County’s courthouse the only one in Arkansas whose location was adjudicated by the nation’s highest court.

By 1850, the county needed a larger courthouse and a two-story, wood-frame building featuring a pair of single-story adjacent wings was built for $1,000 on the site of the present courthouse. As White County continued to grow during that decade, government operations soon outgrew the 1850 structure and plans were made for a newer, larger courthouse to be constructed in 1861. The Civil War, however, curtailed those plans and it was not until 1869 that new construction was to commence. In the intervening years, unfortunately, the 1850 building had been sold, moved, and reopened as the Burrow Hotel. White County’s leaders would have to lease space from the local Masonic Lodge at $450 per year until a new building could be erected.

H.L. Baldwin of Memphis, Tennessee, was retained as architect to design what became a two-story masonry building faced with cut stone on the first floor and brick on the second, topped by a clock tower with a bell dated 1855. While the county accepted a low bid of $25,000 from Searcy builder Wyatt Sanford to construct the building, it proved far more expensive by the time it opened in 1871. Still, the building sufficed for 40 years, with county offices on the first floor and courtrooms on the second.

By 1912, White County had again outgrown its courthouse and employed architect Frank W. Gibb – whose designs are reflected in a number of historic Arkansas courthouses – to remodel the building and add space. Gibb stayed true to the design of the 1871 building, continuing the motif of cut stone on the first floor and brick on the second story. He added wings to the north and south elevations of the building, flattened the original’s hipped roof, and removed gables from the building. The White County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 3, 1977.

Today, the White County Courthouse remains a handsome building, with its soaring columns and Corinthian capitals, marble wainscoting and ornate hexagonal-tile floors. Its grounds are enhanced by memorials to White County soldiers who have served from the Civil War to present day and an Arkansas Champion deodar cedar tree planted by County Judge Herbert Moody in 1939. In addition to county business, the courthouse grounds are home to a farmer’s market during the growing season. The White County Courthouse remains an integral part of its community, and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program will continue to work with county officials to see that it stays that way.

County Courthouse Restoration Grants in White County

FY1991 Waterproofing Basement $10,000
FY1992 Waterproofing Basement and Parapet Walls $21,075
FY1993 Repaint Exterior $7,500
FY1995 Restore Interior Walls and Ceilings $3,500
FY1997 Install Chairlift $20,250
FY1999 North/South Porch Roofs; Paint Clock Tower $35,679
FY2009 Exterior Painting $42,000
FY2012 Roof Restoration $80,000
FY2013 Finish Roof Restoration $48,200
FY2015 Repair Chairlift $25,000

The AHPP also awarded White County a $33,100 County Courthouse Restoration Grant in FY2002 to make the restrooms at the 1914 Searcy Post Office at Gum and Arch streets accessible to handicapped citizens and to install storm windows at the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 20, 1992. The building now serves as a courthouse annex: the Wilbur D. Mills Courts Building, housing the county’s circuit, chancery and probate court offices.

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