January 31, 2012 at 11:52 PM CST - Updated August 22 at 5:01 AM
Clinton -- There's only one traffic signal in the town of Clinton.And that's really all you need in this town of 2,000 people in rural East Feliciana Parish.You naturally slow down when you notice the stately old homes. But the real eye-catcher is the courthouse square.And it's been this way for 170 years.
"If you go out there and stand in the street, this is the exact same building that you will see today. And there are not very many buildings that can say that," says Ann Reilly Jones.
Jones has a deep connection to the old courthouse."My great great grandmother and grandfather owned this property on which this building was constructed, and in 1824-25, when the town was founded, they donated this courthouse square."
The courthouse survived Civil War battles and the Union occupation when it was used as a horse stable.Out front, there's a monument to local soldiers.But the most serious damage has come from water -- a leaky dome, and plaster walls that wicked moisture from the ground.
"Really bad. It was melting from the inside. The water would migrate up the masonry walls and the plaster would feather off,"says Jones.
And the more the walls were repainted, the higher the damaged climbed, peeling and crumbling plaster ten feet above the floor.But five years of renovations, and $5 million, have returned this historic landmark to mint condition.
"We still have our original courthouse bell, it was cast in New York," Jones notes.
Jones, the former head of the Louisiana Division Of Historic Preservation, oversaw the courthouse work. She points to something you are unlikely to see in any other courthouse."The defense and the plaintiff and the defendant sat at the same table. At some point in English judicial history, the two were divided."
The bailiff's desk and the railing around it are part of the original wood furnishings that were in this courtroom when the courthouse opened back in 1840.The judge's bench is also original.The red cloth is an exact match for a tiny piece of original fabric that was found during restoration.
"We made an effort to conserve the woodwork to museum standards," Jones says.
Clinton's courthouse is the oldest in Louisiana.And it may be even more significant.
"We believe, that it is the oldest in the United States still in continuous operation, on its original footprint," says Jones.
For Jones, the restoration has been a labor of love. And it keeps a 170-year tradition alive.
"I get a complete sense that this room in this atmosphere, there is justice to be had."
The courthouse has a striking presence; it is a living, working monument that will remain the centerpiece of this town.
The five-year restoration project is nearly complete.The renovated courthouse is expecte