The white two-story building near the corner of Bay and Bladen streets might become a museum or a new office for Beaufort County officials, but within two years, it will no longer be a federal courthouse, a group of judges decided this week.
The federal courthouse in Beaufort was among six others ordered closed by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a panel of 27 judges led by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The panel sets policy for federal courts.
The local courthouse will be shuttered in 2014 when the government's lease with Beaufort County, which owns the building, expires, federal officials said. It was unknown Friday how many full-time employees work at the facility.
The other sites targeted for closure are in Gadsen, Ala.; Pikeville, Ky.; Meridian, Miss.; Wilkesboro, N.C.; and Amarillo, Texas, officials said.
Federal court officials said closing the buildings will save more than $1 million a year in rent.
The six courthouses were selected from a group of 60 identified in March by government officials and ranked for possible closure based on a variety of categories, including cost, usage and location.
The courthouse in Beaufort, a 19th century building that became a federal courthouse in 1994 after serving for years as the county's courthouse, topped that list, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The impact of the decision on the local legal community will be minimal. Like the others slated to close, Beaufort's federal courthouse does not have a resident judge and has been largely inactive for several years, with most local federal cases being sent to Charleston for trial, said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone.
"For the 20 or so years that I've been here, that courthouse has been used sparingly at best," Stone said. "It's a shame, too, because that is an absolutely beautiful courtroom. I'd love to be able to try criminal cases in there and utilize it during our court weeks. ... For jury trials, it would be perfect."
The building stands on the site of Barnwell's Castle, a three-story pre-Revolutionary War tabby home that burned in 1881, according to historians Alexia Jones Helsley and Lawrence Rowland. The courthouse was rebuilt in 1884, and its exterior last renovated in 1936.
County administrator Gary Kubic said County Council members were aware the courthouse was being targeted for closure and toured it earlier this year.
"We have no formal or definitive plans for the reuse of the courthouse at this point," Kubic said. "There is some thought that it could be used as the county administration building, and the courtroom could be converted into council chambers, but no decisions have been made."
County Council will ultimately decide what happens to the building, but there is no timetable for that decision, Kubic said.
The Department of Justice signed a 20-year lease with the county in 1991 and opted last year to extend the agreement for another five, according to county officials.
The county receives $240,000 a year from the Justice Department to pay for $4.86 million in recently completed interior renovations, Kubic said.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said he is confident the city will find some public use for the building but added that if he had a choice, the courthouse would be converted into a museum.
"I think it would be great if the community came together, formed a private endowment and created a museum dedicated to the history of Beaufort with an emphasis on Reconstruction," Keyserling said. "It would be a museum for academics and for scholars, as well as for children and visitors. That's my vision for the courthouse, but we're obviously a long ways off."