< back to articles listings

In Praise of Bricks and Old Mortar

by Jay Reeves |

I love old buildings – the grander, statelier and more steeped in history the better.

It’s one reason I was attracted to the law in the first place.

This attraction dates back to my childhood in Kingstree, South Carolina. Three blocks west of the house I grew up in was the magnificent Williamsburg County courthouse. Its multilevel front steps opened onto a wide portico with towering columns and a massive door like the door to a castle. I can recall ascending those seemingly-endless steps for the first time and imagining I was climbing a stairway to heaven – and this was a decade before the Led Zeppelin song. 

I had a similar feeling when I entered our Methodist Church – though with fewer steps and a less impressive door – and on family vacations when we toured the monuments and museums and great buildings of Washington, DC, including (in my youthful opinion) the greatest of them all: Griffith Stadium, home of baseball’s Washington Senators.

These structures inspired me. They stirred within me feelings of reverence and awe and infinite human possibility. I sensed important work was being done in those buildings, which made me aspire to do important work myself, perhaps inside those very walls.

And maybe it is just coincidence, but in 1976 I applied for law school in the same month the original Rocky debuted, and I like everyone else cheered as Rocky Balboa ran up the 72 steep steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and posed triumphantly with arms upraised at the beautiful, Mount Olympus-like summit 

Such is the alchemy that can transmute rock, metal and wood into cathedrals of humanity.


At Home in the Holy City

“You must understand they’re not just buildings, Jay,” Nancy Hawk would say to me. “They’re part of our history. They help tell our story.”

Nancy Hawk was a Charleston, SC lawyer, community leader and “the ultimate renaissance person,” according to the Charleston Post & Courier when she died in 2008, and “someone whose influence, charity and love of the Lowcountry touched every corner of it for more than 50 years.”

She was also my mentor and friend. For a brief time in the late 1980s, we shared law office space on Meeting Street in Charleston, where I had the good fortune of working beside someone who did not merely like what they did, but was passionate about it.

Nancy Hawk taught me much about law and life, not least of which was that one’s passions can complement and enhance one’s law career. She had been fighting preservation battles in Charleston for years before she decided a law degree might aid her efforts. So later in life she entered the University of South Carolina Law School, where we met as 1L classmates (I was 22 at the time).

As a lawyer, Nancy Hawk was a pioneer in preservation law, coming up with creative ways to defend historic sites from demolition, defacement or disregard. As a suitemate, she was honest, kind and patient – a trait I suppose was required in order to raise nine children as she did, and to share space with the likes of me.


From Welcome to Windhoek

I thought of Nancy Hawk as I was reading From Welcome to Windhoek: A Judge’s Journey, the just-published memoir from Rich Leonard, Dean of Campbell Law School.

As Dean Leonard recounts tales from his long and fascinating career in the law, his twin loves of history and architecture come shining through. In one incident, he writes of his astonishment and joy upon discovering that the run-down federal building he worked in (he was a U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge at the time) was actually an architectural jewel designed by the famous Alfred Mullett. Dean Leonard even boasts an artistic design credit of his own – it’s on a sculpture that graces the entrance to a courthouse in Clearwater, Florida.

I don’t know if Dean Leonard ever met Nancy Hawk, but I have a feeling they would have gotten along well.

I’m grateful for them both, as I am grateful for all the wonderful old buildings that stand in quiet dignity, that enrich my life, that become part of who I am, that will be here after I am gone.

From Welcome to Windhoek: A Judge’s Journey can be ordered here. 

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Newsletter Signup