The courthouse sits on a rise overlooking the Black River. It is a two story brick building, set on a stone foundation. Brick pilasters rise two stories at its corners, and between its window bays. It square tower is decorated with heavily bracketed cornices at the top of each stage, and is topped by a pyramidal roof. It was built in 1888, and is one of the government buildings from that period remaining in northeastern Arkansas.
Powhatan became the seat of Lawrence County in 1869. For the next four years, the court had to conduct business in rented buildings. Then, in 1872, Blocks 8 and 11 were purchased from their respective owners for $800: the Lindsay family and Andrew Balfour. One year later, construction of the courthouse was completed, along with the county jail. The courthouse was built by Thornton and Jones of Little Rock and designed by architect John D. Edwards. It cost $16,000. The courthouse burned in 1885, and though arson was suspected, the exact cause has never been determined. With no meeting place available, attorney George Thornburgh proposed renting the Balfour storehouse, a proposal which was accepted by Judge D.C. Smith.xi James P. Coffin, commissioner of public buildings, invited bids in 18871 and awarded a building contract to Boone & McGinnis of Little Rock to build a new courthouse on January 12, 1888, for $9,350. Work had begun on the courthouse by April, 1888.2 The architect was D.A. McKinnon of Paducah, Kentucky, whose plan called for a two-story structure with ten rooms and two fireproof vaults.2a On May 10, the cornerstone of the new building was laid in a ceremony organized by the Knights Templar, Masonic Lodge No. 72. The first story was completed by July 10, 1888.3The courthouse served Lawrence County until 1963, when voters chose to move all government functions to Walnut Ridge.
The government had abandoned the courthouse by 1966 and no effort was made to preserve it until Governor Winthrop Rockefeller made a campaign visit to Powhatan. He noticed the old courthouse had fallen into disrepair and recommended that someone restore it, after which he arranged to bring a team of specialists from Williamsburg to assess the situation. They found the courthouse in a deplorable state. Pigeons came at will through the broken windows. Some county records had been stuffed into cereal boxes, and others were piled high, left to the mercy of mice and silverfish. Russell Baker, the State Archivist, and Dr. john Ferguson, Director of the State History Commission, were brought from Little Rock to train a group of volunteers how to identify, categorize, and protect the documents, though many were beyond salvage. Thus began a long, tedious process.
The courthouse was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1970. Restoration began in earnest in 1973. By October, it was officially transferred to ADPT.
During restoration in 2005, a curious line of text was discovered in the main hall underneath the layers of paint:
"Warning: defacing these walls is forbidden under penalty fine of $5.00"
"The present court-house was constructed in 1888, by the contractors Boon and McGinnis, at a cost, including the pay of the commissioner, J.P. Coffin, and the removal of the debris of the old building, of about $12,000. It stands on the site of the former building, and is a handsome modern two-story brick structure, on a rock foundation, with fine offices and fire-proof vaults below and the court and other rooms above."
Courthouse--1888 folder, Powhatan SP Archives
xi MSNE.0070. Lawrence County Court Records. Box 87. Folder 6. Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives. Powhatan, Arkansas.
1. Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock, Arkansas) · Tue, Dec 13, 1887 · Page 6 Coffin invites bids 1887.pdf
2. Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas) · Wed, Apr 11, 1888 · Page 6 work begun on new courthouse Hotel Opens.pdf
2a Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas) December 8, 1887. Page 8 New_courthouse_for_Powhatan_planned__12_8_1887.pdf
3. Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas) · Tue, Jul 10, 1888 · Page 2 first story of new courthouse complete.pdf