The C. Bascom Slemp Federal Building in Big Stone Gap is being closed by the U.S. General Services Administration due to security shortcomings, vacancy and lack of court cases. Photo by Jessica Hood.

For a dozen years, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, tried to keep the historic federal courthouse in Big Stone Gap from closing, but he admits that it’s been a losing battle.

Both he and longtime U.S. District Judge James Jones say the decision to close has already been made, and Town Manager Stephen Lawson said he is looking toward the building’s future.

On June 23, 2022, the congressman received a letter from the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages federal property, stating that it “recently decided to dispose of the C. Bascom Slemp Federal Building and Courthouse.”

On Sept. 3, public comment closed for proposed changes to the local rules for the U.S. District Court for the Western Division of Virginia that would dissolve the Big Stone Gap division and facilitate the closing of the courthouse.

The primary reasons for the closing decision, according to the GSA, are the vacancy in the building, limited demand and “significant infrastructure deficiencies,” which is about a lack of security, according to Griffith and Jones.  

“It’s a sad day that they were forced to close the Big Stone Gap courthouse,” said Jones, a senior judge who is based in Abingdon. “I’ve been a judge and a lawyer for over 50 years, a judge for the last 27 years, and I’ve tried a lot of cases there as a lawyer and heard a lot of cases there as a judge and I’ve always loved that courthouse. It’s a beautiful courthouse. It’s historic — over 100 years old — and it’s a shame that we had to agree to close it. But unfortunately, the federal courts are facing very serious budget concerns.”

A U.S. Postal Service office remains on the first floor of the building. The GSA will continue to work with USPS to “ensure their continuing housing needs are met and will keep stakeholders, including the City of Big Stone Gap, informed of our progress,” according to the letter.

There have been no cases heard for several years in the single courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse, but the three-story stone structure still looms large in the downtown of the small Wise County town that’s home to about 5,200 people.

The building’s nomination to the National Register of Historic places states that the courthouse was built after the model of a Florentine palace, and its “size, its architectural excellence, and its … use of fine materials are unusual for such a small town.” Photo by Jessica Hood.

‘1800s-type security’ in an increasingly dangerous world

It was 2011 when Griffith said he first heard that the courthouse might be targeted for closing.

But its elimination was being considered much earlier than that — in 1996, according to a story in The Roanoke Times. It was part of a study looking at underused courthouses, and its possible closing drew protests from then-U.S. Sen. John Warner, a Republican, and then-U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Abingdon, the newspaper reported.

During a time when there is a real threat to judges and even jurors, the building’s security issues couldn’t be solved and were the “final straw,” in the structure’s removal as a federal building, Griffith said. The biggest problem was that there was no way to get the judge in and out of the building safely, he added.

“Sometimes, one of the problems you get into is it’s a historic building and there’s a prohibition on using any federal money that would distract from the historic nature of a building, and I suspect that was part of it, too,” Griffith said.

Cases involving dangerous inmates from the federal prison in Lee County and the state prisons in Wise County also posed security problems, according to Griffith, who said the building also lacks a proper holding area for prisoners.

Jones said the building has “1800s-type security” during a time when “jurors and court personnel and the public need better security. … It’s a serious matter. There are more and more threats to federal judges.”

In recent years, more cases have been moved to the federal courthouse in Abingdon, which underwent a major renovation that significantly improved security about five years ago, the judge said. 

The U.S. District Court’s Western District of Virginia has courthouses in Abingdon, Charlottesville, Danville, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg and Roanoke.

Another factor in the closing was a declining caseload. When the coal industry was doing well in Southwest Virginia, the federal court had a full docket of cases stemming from lawsuits filed over mineral rights for natural gas and coal and lawsuits stemming from coal mining. But with the downturn of the industry, the number of cases dwindled, Griffith said.

He opened a “quasi” office at the courthouse building to help with the vacancy issue but had to close it when word came from the GSA that it was getting rid of the building.

One reason Griffith has fought so hard for so long to keep the courthouse open is that he believes there will be growth in the coalfields area at some point and there will be a need for it again.

“I think it’s a gorgeous building and a classic piece of architecture,” he said. “A lot of the history of the communities in Southwest Virginia have gone through that courthouse over the decades, and I’m always hesitant to walk away from that lightly.”

According to a public notice posted on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia website, the Local Rules Committee met July 13 to discuss proposed changes to the local rules, including some pertaining to approval by the Judicial Conference of the United States to cease operations at the courthouse in Big Stone Gap.

The committee’s recommendation would dissolve the Big Stone Gap division and pull all of its localities — the counties of Dickenson, Wise, Scott, Lee and the city of Norton — into the Abingdon division. It also recommends combining the jury pools into one Abingdon jury pool.  

Jones explained that the proposed changes are not about closing the courthouse but changing the rules so the cases that arise in the area that had been covered by the Big Stone Gap courthouse would be transferred to Abingdon. He noted that that has already been happening.

President Calvin Coolidge (second from left) swearing in C. Bascom Slemp (second from right) as his presidential secretary in 1923. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

A historic landmark that honors a native son

The courthouse, which opened in 1913, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Its design is the Second Renaissance Revival style, which was popular in the early 20th century, according to the GSA, which calls the building “architecturally significant” with high-quality materials and treatments.

The 1975 nomination to the National Register states that the courthouse was built after the model of a Florentine palace and its “size, its architectural excellence, and its … use of fine materials are unusual for such a small town, especially in an area which was just emerging from a long period of isolation from the outside world. The building’s importance is enhanced by the survival of a great quantity of early hardware, plumbing, heating and electrical fixtures, and specially designed furniture.”

The GSA’s history of the structure goes on to say that little has changed since then and the building remains largely original, with an unusually high amount of historic fabric and features. 

The courtroom, reached by a narrow staircase, has a coffered ceiling, ornamental plasterwork and mahogany woodwork. The third floor has a series of small offices and jury rooms.

In the 1908 Annual Report of the Supervising Architect, of the federal government, came the first mention of plans for construction of the post office and courthouse, with $15,000 set aside to acquire the site. It was completed at a total cost of $94,000, according to the nominating form for the National Register listing.

Chuck Slemp, a Big Stone Gap native who grew up in the shadow of the courthouse that bears his last name, said he is saddened by its closing. Slemp is currently the chief deputy attorney general of Virginia and is a former commonwealth’s attorney for Wise County.

Chuck Slemp. Courtesy photo.
Chuck Slemp. Photo courtesy of Chuck Slemp.

Slemp said it was a “thrill of a lifetime” when he was a defense attorney for a jury trial that took place in the Big Stone Gap courthouse. Jones presided over the case, which was Slemp’s last trial before he became commonwealth’s attorney in 2014.

The building is named for C. Bascom Slemp, who was a first cousin to Chuck Slemp’s great-grandfather. Bascom Slemp was a longtime congressman and served for two years as presidential secretary to President Calvin Coolidge, a position of power that is now called chief of staff.

“He basically ran the White House while Coolidge was away,” Slemp said.

In more recent decades, the courthouse has been most closely associated with longtime federal Judge Glen Williams, who died in 2012 at the age of 92.

It was Williams who worked to reopen the federal courthouse in Big Stone Gap in 1978, after it had been closed during the 1950s.

The closing was just politics, according to Dr. Larry Fleenor, a retired local physician and author of several history books. According to Fleenor, court officials at the time didn’t want to travel to the town for cases. During those years, the USPS office remained open while the courthouse upstairs was closed and locked up.

Williams, however, was from Lee County and wanted the closer courthouse to reopen. It remained open until his retirement and death, when talk of closing it again began. 

George Allen, the former Virginia governor and U.S. senator, was a law clerk for Williams. He said the court’s proximity to the judge’s home was a factor in Williams wanting to reopen the courthouse, but it was also because it was more convenient for those who would use it in the coalfields. The judge was very proud of his success in reopening the courthouse, which he loved, Allen said.

Williams was known for his wit, his sharp legal mind and his kindness, and he was often referred to as a Southern gentleman. Slemp, who experienced Williams’ kindness when he was a child, said the judge inspired his legal career.

There were a number of high-profile trials at the courthouse over the years. When asked which ones stand out the most, Jones pointed to the hearings Williams held during the United Mine Workers’ strike against Pittston Coal in 1989-90. It involved about 1,700 miners from Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

“Judge Williams held a number of hearings there and he did a good job trying to resolve differences between the company and the striking mine workers. I expect that was one of the most significant series of cases. But we’ve had just a whole lot of different types of cases,” Jones said.

Planning for the building’s future

Town Manager Stephen Lawson, also a Big Stone Gap native, said the negative impact of the courthouse closing on the town has come and gone.

He said he is now focused on the building’s future and has been working for nearly a year with federal officials to try to buy or take control of the building. He’s also trying to help the U.S. Postal Service find another home for its office there.

The town needs living space downtown, and Lawson’s most interested in trying to develop the building as a boutique hotel or a condominium project.

He said he has had some preliminary discussions about funding the project and what kind of money like tax credits that might be available because it’s a historic building.

He said he discussed the possible uses for the building with Griffith, when the congressman visited the downtown area.

“I think that building is gorgeous enough that somebody’s going to want to come in there and do some restoration with it,” Griffith said. “I’m looking to local government to help us figure it out and if I can be of assistance in doing something, I’m more than happy to help because of the building’s historic nature.”

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...