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1908 Courthouse to improve accessibility

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After threatened legal action forced the relocation of events, the courthouse foundation is working to improve access for the disabled.

By Patrick Smith

INDEPENDENCE — The University of North Carolina School of the Arts was set to hold its second concert of a winter concert series this month at the Historic 1908 Courthouse in Independence until handicapped accessibility issues with the building were brought to light by an activist for the disabled.
The regional arts council has now moved the concert and all other upcoming events scheduled at the 105-year-old courthouse’s Baldwin Auditorium to new venues, and the courthouse foundation is preparing to address Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues.
Dr. Marilynn Phillips of Maryland, a retired Morgan State University professor who has been a disability rights activist for 35 years, contacted the Historic 1908 Courthouse Foundation, Arts Council of the Twin Counties, Virginia Commission for the Arts, UNCSA faculty, local newspapers and others earlier this month via e-mail.
She threatened legal action against the 1908 Courthouse Foundation unless the concert was relocated to an ADA-compliant venue or canceled.

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Phillips claimed in the e-mail that UNCSA, the local arts council and the Virginia Commission for the Arts had already violated civil rights and accessibility laws by holding the first concert of the series at the courthouse on Jan. 27. The issue, she said, is that the sponsoring organizations — the school of the arts and the state and local arts organizations — are publicly funded or sponsored, and therefore prohibited by federal law from holding events in inaccessible venues.
In a separate e-mail to the courthouse foundation, Phillips cited several specific ADA violations, including the courthouse’s lack of wheelchair access to the stage in the Baldwin Auditorium, the lack of signs directing visitors to the wheelchair ramp and entrance on the east side of the building and the building’s lack of ADA-compliant restrooms.
“If you’re a patriot, think of the number of people who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabilities,” Phillips said. “This is a serious issue, and it’s disgusting that [disabled persons] have to beg for the right to pee.”
Phillips has had a mobility disability since age 2. She has been a full-time wheelchair user for more than 20 years.
In e-mail correspondences and photos shared with The Gazette, 1908 Courthouse Foundation President Laura Bryant addressed the handicapped accessibility questions Phillips raised.
The building does have wheelchair ramps and an elevator to reach the auditorium on the second floor, where concerts and events are held.
There is no ramp to the stage or wheelchair access to the backstage area, but there is ample room near the stage to park wheelchairs for audience members.
Bryant also answered Phillips’ question about the width of doors in the courthouse, the Treasury gift shop and museum on the first floor. One photo shows a person holding a yardstick in a doorway to show it is wide enough for wheelchairs.
Phillips originally established contact with the non-profit courthouse foundation in 2009 and urged members of the board to make the needed renovations to the building at that time. Architectural sketches of new ADA-compliant restrooms were drawn, but the project never came to fruition.
“The foundation has made significant moves for accessibility, but the one issue with the restrooms is where we’ve lagged behind,” said Courthouse Foundation Vice President Ken Winans. “Our biggest issue regarding the project is the cost, which is around $7,000, to remodel both bathrooms.”
“The restrooms complied with building codes at the time they were installed [around 1986], with grab rails around the commodes, sometimes referred to as an ‘ambulatory stall,’ but there is insufficient room inside the stalls for a wheelchair to turn or for side-transfer,” Bryant wrote in an e-mail response to Phillips.
For the restrooms to become ADA compliant, Winans explained the privacy wall between the door and the sink in both the men’s and women’s restrooms would need to be removed, and the stall area around the commode would need to be widened in order to allow for better maneuverability. In the men’s room, the urinal will also need to be relocated to make room for the wider stall.
Winans said the courthouse foundation’s need for donations toward the restroom renovations was mentioned “prominently” in its most recent newsletter and that the board is hoping to receive larger contributions. He said the board had received some donations, but they’ve only raised about half of the needed amount so far.
Despite the lack of full funding to complete the project, Winans said the Courthouse Foundation voted unanimously at its Feb. 12 meeting in favor of beginning work on the bathroom and other issues as soon as possible.
The drawings for the restroom remodel have been approved by the foundation’s building and grounds committee and the Grayson County building inspector, Bryant said.
Winans estimated work should begin within the next three weeks.
He and Bryant said they hope the community will assist with the project both financially and physically.
“[The courthouse] is a resource for all, and [the upgrades] will make it easier for those in wheelchairs and even those who are not in wheelchairs to access all parts of the building,” Winans said. “Some of the work will be done by volunteers, and we welcome anyone willing and able to come out and help.”
Laura Romanowski, executive director of the Twin County Arts Council, also stressed the importance of the community’s assistance in making the improvements to the courthouse. “[The Twin County Arts Council] values having the courthouse available as a venue,” she said. “They deserve all the support they can get.”
Romanowski said the arts council has moved this month’s concert and will move all other events that were set to take place at the courthouse to the Galax Public Library until work on the building is complete. “Once [the restroom improvements] are done and all the other small fixes are accomplished, we will return to the courthouse as soon as possible,” she said.
Phillips said she views handicap accessibility as a civil rights issue, and the right to accessible restrooms is something that many who are not disabled take for granted. “We’ve got to get to a point where we provide everyone with dignity and the same opportunities as everyone else,” she said.
Phillips based her concerns about the courthouse on what she found online, not from an in-person visit. “All I saw on the [courthouse’s] website was stairs,” she said. “When I saw that, I decided to take action.”

1908 COURTHOUSE ACCESSIBILITY Q&A

The following is compiled from questions submitted to the 1908 Courthouse Foundation by disabilities activist Dr. Marilynn Phillips, and responses from courthouse foundation President Laura Bryant.

Q: Is there an alternate accessible entrance into the courthouse?
A: Yes, but there is no signage indicating this from the front or the west side of the building. A wheelchair ramp was installed at about the same time the elevator to the second floor auditorium was installed, around 2005. The courthouse will purchase and install the appropriate signage to direct people to the ramp.

Q: Are all interior public-use areas, the Treasury gift shop, the Grayson Crossroads Museum and the Baldwin Auditorium all wheelchair accessible?
A: Yes, with the exception of the stage itself, all public-use areas of the courthouse are accessible to persons using a wheelchair. From the wheelchair ramp, one enters the Vault Museum (part of the Crossroads Museum) without a level change. From here, one may either take the elevator to the second floor Baldwin Auditorium or exit on the same level into the main hallway into the rest of the Crossroads Museum. All of the museum and offices on the first floor, as well as the conference room and Treasury Gift shop, are on the same level with no thresholds. All of the doors to the aforementioned rooms are more than 34 inches wide to accommodate wheelchairs.

Q: Is there wheelchair accessible seating in the auditorium?
A: The elevator empties onto the main floor of the auditorium. On this floor are risers that hold 80 fixed seats. In front of and to the side of the riser, there is open floor where chairs are placed for additional seating or to accommodate wheelchairs. There is approximately 18 feet between the front of the risers and the front of the stage and about 15 feet to the sides for chairs or wheelchairs.

Q: Is the stage wheelchair accessible? If not, how are performers who cannot climb steps or who use wheelchairs accommodated?
A: There is no ramp or other means for a person using a wheelchair to get onto the stage. Bryant said the courthouse foundation needs to determine the best approach for addressing this issue with local authorities and contractors.

Q: Is the area inside the courthouse, where the Wednesday Old-Time Mountain Music Jams are held, wheelchair accessible?
A: When weather is inclement, the jam is held inside in the main hallway, which is wheelchair accessible. When the weather permits, the jam is held in the bandstand outside.

Q: Is the bandstand wheelchair accessible?
A: The bandstand does not have a ramp for wheelchair access. Bryant said the foundation will plan for a ramp to be built before events this summer.

Q: Is the Grayson Wine Festival wheelchair accessible, when it is held indoors?
A: The Grayson Wine Festival was held indoors once in the Baldwin Auditorium. Since the wineries were on the stage, there was no access to them by a wheelchair user. All other years the wine festival has been held on the lawn.