Founded in the late eighteenth century in northeastern North Carolina, Elizabeth City prospered as a trade center along the Dismal Swamp Canal. During the 1890s, the population more than doubled from 3300 to 8000 residents, due to the construction of railroads. At the urging of U.S. Representative Harry Skinner, Congress allocated funds for a new federal building in 1899 to accommodate the increasing space needs of the federal courts, as well as provide a post office.
The government selected a site on Matthews Street (now Colonial Street) and developed plans. Controversy soon arose, however, due to the prospective site’s location near a prison, and the start of construction was delayed. After public debate, additional funds were appropriated, the original site was sold, and a new Main Street site purchased in 1903. Plans were revised and approved in 1904, and construction began.
The Office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury, then led by James Knox Taylor, designed the building, and General Supply and Construction Company of New York served as the construction contractor. After several minor delays, the building was completed and occupied by tenants in 1906, with the newspaper calling it “the handsomest” in the state.
By the 1930s, the building could no longer accommodate the growing post office, and funds for an addition were allocated in 1936. The two-wing addition provided new postal workspace, as well as offices for the courts and U.S. Coast Guard. In the 1960s, it was again deemed too small, and a new post office was constructed.
In 1977, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Elizabeth City Historic District. In 2009, the building was renamed to honor J. Herbert W. Small, who served as judge of the Superior Court for North Carolina’s First Judicial District. It continues to serve as a courthouse and federal office building.