CLINTON — People packed into a courtroom Wednesday for what the presiding judge called “the coming-out party for the first lady of East Feliciana Parish,” the 171-year-old East Feliciana Parish Courthouse.

Twentieth Judicial District Judge George H. Ware Jr. told the audience the building, accepted on Sept. 7, 1840, is the oldest courthouse in the United States that is still used for its intended purpose.

The parish’s court has been operating out of a temporary courthouse on Plank Road since July 2008, when a project began to correct problems with the two-story Greek Revival structure in the heart of Clinton that were related to restoration work more than 40 years ago.

The restoration work is nearing completion, said Steve Granger, site supervisor for Cangelosi Ward General Contractors.

“It shouldn’t be long,” Granger said.

Funding for the project began with a $1 million grant from the Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation, secured through the efforts of parish residents Daryl and Mary Pennington.

“Nothing would have started” without the efforts of the Penningtons, said Ann Reiley Jones, a member of the Building Committee the East Feliciana Parish Police Jury organized to oversee the work.

“They continued to add to that donation when I had special needs for preservation for which public money could not be spent,” Jones said.

Jones also recognized former Commissioner of Administration Angelle Davis, state Sen. Rob Marionneaux Jr., D-Grosse Tete; and Rep. Tom McVea, R-St. Francisville, for securing state capital outlay funds to match the Pennington Foundation’s gift.

Jones said the Police Jury and committee had about $3.5 million available for the work, although the final price tag has not been tallied because of the remaining work.

Ware said East Feliciana Parish owes a debt of gratitude to Jones for her work in bringing the project to a successful completion.

“Her love for this building was invaluable in its restoration,” Ware said.

“I have a confession to make: I have fallen in love… Like Pygmalion, I have developed an affection for an inanimate object: this courthouse,” Jones replied.

Restoration architect Annie Sauser, a member of the John Milner architectural firm, said the brick building was “in bad shape” when then-Clerk of Court Debbie Hudnall began exploring ways to save the structure about 10 years ago.

In an earlier restoration project, the wooden flooring and joists on the ground floor were ripped out the building and replaced with a concrete slab. Plaster on the interior and exterior walls was replaced with plaster made with Portland cement.

As a result, the building could not “breathe,” Sauser said, and moisture from the ground had no means of escape.

The contractor removed the hard plaster, repaired the brick walls and put in a wood floor with a crawl space underneath and put new plaster made with lime on the walls, Sauser said.

In addition to most of the Feliciana Bar Association members and 20th Judicial District Judge William G. Carmichael, the program was attended by state Attorney General James Caldwell and many judges of the 19th Judicial District and 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.