Historic Burke County Courthouse
Open for tours by appointment and during open hours of the courthouse. Group and school tours with advance notice. Suggested donation: $5 per adult.
In 1830 the Burke County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions decided that the County needed a new courthouse to replace the “shabby, weather-beaten” plank courthouse that had been built on the public square in 1791. The General Assembly of 1830-31 authorized it to spend $8,000 and named five commissioners to oversee the construction. In the 1832-33 sessions, the General Assembly increased the amount to $12,000.
James Binnie, a Scottish builder, was awarded the contract in 1833. He built the courthouse of native stone quarried on the Forney plantation about four miles north of Morganton. Frederick Roderick, a German stonemason who later established his home in Burke County, assisted Mr. Binnie with the construction. The building was put into use in 1837.
From 1847 until 1862, the North Carolina Supreme Court held its August session in the Historic Courthouse for the convenience of lawyers from the western part of the state who were arguing appeals from the Superior Courts of their respective counties.
During the Civil War, on April 17, 1865, Major General George Stoneman occupied the building and destroyed most of the County’s records.
In 1885 the exterior of the building was covered with stucco. In 1903 a major renovation designed by architect Frank Milburn of Columbia, SC raised the porticos and replaced the simple classical cupola with an elaborate one of Baroque style, giving the courthouse its present appearance.
The Historic Courthouse was in continuous use until 1976 when the present Burke County Courthouse was completed. The effort to preserve the Historic Courthouse began in 1978. The restoration, completed in 1984, was accomplished with the joint efforts of Burke County, the City of Morganton, and Historic Burke Foundation.
The North Carolina Supreme Court met in the Old Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton in 2004, and again in 2013. In 2015, Governor McCrory signed Senate Bill 161 into law (S.L. 2015-89), allowing the court to meet in Morganton once again, “…the court shall meet in the Old Burke County Courthouse, the location of summer sessions of the Supreme Court from 1847-1862.” After 155 years, in 2016 and again in 2018, the court once again held sessions in the Historic Courthouse. It continues to host the court at every opportunity.
The Historic Courthouse Square
The Courthouse Square or Courthouse Lawn is maintained by the City of Morganton with various festivals, events, and gatherings on the lawn scheduled by the city's Main Street Department.
On the northwestern corner of the lawn, a monument to confederate soldiers of Burke County was erected in 1911. The bronze statue of the solider was added in 1918, as a gift from Captain William Joseph Kincaid, a Burke County Confederate soldier.
Also found on the Square is a memorial rose garden given in memory of Bob Byrd (1930-2001), a prominent Burke County attorney.
A statue of Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr., is located outside the Green Street entrance to the Historic Courthouse. Ervin, a Burke County native, served in the US Senate from 1954 to 1974 and gained national prominence in his role as Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities during the Watergate Scandal.
The Charters of Freedom, located to the north of the courthouse, were installed July 2, 2014 by Foundation Forward. These include The Declaration of Independence, The United States Constitution, and The Bill of Rights.
Frequently Asked Questions
The courthouse is both heated and air conditioned and has two restrooms on each floor.
The courthouse has an elevator located off the main hallway serving the first and second floors.
Frances "Frankie" Silver
Contrary to popular belief, Frances "Frankie" Silver was not tried in this Historic Burke County Courthouse as it was not yet complete during both her trial and execution. It is possible she saw it under construction as she was thought to have been jailed in view of the Courthouse Square. Her execution by hanging on July 12th, 1833 was carried out several blocks away from the courthouse near Valdese Avenue and White Street. Though often said to be the first hanging of a woman in the area, the state or both, research indicates that at least three or four other women both met that fate well before her.
The Future of the Courthouse Square
We are often asked what is planned for the soon to be revitalized Historic Courthouse Square. With so many moving parts, your best resource is the the Downtown Masterplan itself. The sections concerning the square, begin with 7.2 (page 103), though we recommend reading the whole plan!
While certainly one of the older buildings in Morganton, the experiences of staff and volunteers at all hours of the day and night over the years has been quite uneventful. If ghosts exist, they are extremely polite and even more quiet.
If you'd like to hold an event inside the Historic Burke County Courthouse, please contact us for details. We'd be happy to help you! Please note that use of the Historic Courthouse Square is scheduled by Morganton's Main Street Department.
We do! The Courthouse makes a wonderful historic venue for weddings, events, lectures, performances and more. Contact us for details on rentals, deposits, and scheduling. Members of Historic Burke Foundation are eligible for a discount!