Hamilton Bush is in the house, bringing you those time-tested tidbits of our fair city’s history that both delight and amaze—and you, dear readers, are the reason for the writing. Now, nothing helps out Old Hamilton as much as hearing from all of you in readerland. For one thing, it lets the boss know that someone is still interested in hearing what your scribe has to say. In addition, your letters supply grist for the old history mill, opportunities for yours truly to answer those burning questions that have kept you awake at night. Now, don’t ask about the meaning of life. Let’s stick to the business at hand.
Sound off and your history hound will put his nose to the ground, turn over every local rock, and ferret out any shred of information available. The thrill of the hunt helps keep Old Hamilton sharp and in the game! Now let’s get on with it.
Dear Hamilton Bush,
I work downtown and often use my lunch hour to put on sneakers and take a power walk around Fountain Square. The scenery is beautiful there, regardless of the season, and I particularly enjoy the Fireman’s Fountain and the variety of flowers planted there in the spring. The lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse is coming back strongly since it is no longer “occupied,” and I hear that the 100th anniversary of the stately building will be observed during the coming year. What do you know about that?
Sincerely, Fit as a Fiddle at Fountain Square
Dear Fit as a Fiddle,
You are absolutely correct! The centennial of our Hamilton County Courthouse is actually already underway. According to a news release from the office of County Mayor Jim Coppinger, several events are taking place to mark the anniversary, including a Christmas open house and a concert scheduled for the 4th of July. The lawn will also host an interesting exhibit of vintage photographs from the early years of the county up through recent times. After all, it’s the business of the people that’s conducted at the courthouse every day!
Since Hamilton County was founded in 1819, there have been six courthouses, beginning with the cabin at Poe’s Tavern in the Soddy-Daisy area. The present courthouse—for all its classic beauty and utility—was constructed following a great tragedy. Its predecessor had been constructed on the site at Fountain Square in 1879, and its imposing, 120-foot bell tower housing a 1.5-ton bell and a 3-ton clock was a local landmark.
During a storm in 1910, lightning struck the courthouse bell tower, and the entire structure was engulfed in flames. (If the strike was the Almighty’s vengeance following the utterance of some witness’s falsehood while under oath, there is no record of such proceedings.) Witnesses recalled that the horrific fire was quite a spectacle, and, sadly, a quantity of the county’s oldest records were destroyed.
Within a short time, plans were made for a new courthouse at the same prominent location. Famed architect R.H. Hunt, known to many as the “master builder” of Chattanooga, drew up the plans for the new courthouse in the popular Beaux-Arts style. The main entrance was moved from Walnut Street to Seventh Street, and the exterior was constructed of gray marble trimmed with terra cotta. The price tag for the entire courthouse project was a hefty $350,000, a sum roughly five times more than what it had cost to erect its predecessor three decades earlier. In 1913, the new courthouse opened.
By 1937, the need for additional space was recognized and the original building was enlarged for the first time. Today, county courts still convene at the courthouse regularly, though the need for additional space remains and has prompted many county officials to relocate their offices to other buildings.
The Hamilton County Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and the lawn continues to be a favorite location for couples to wed under a canopy of stately trees. Sadly, one venerable Osage orange that had spread its branches for more than a century and witnessed hundreds of unions near the steps of the main entrance was felled in a storm earlier this year. Among other points of interest on the lawn is a bust of Confederate General A.P. Stewart and a stone monument to John Ross, who was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and an icon of local history.
Surrounding the courthouse site is an impressive stone wall built during the construction of the earlier courthouse in 1879. The masons, two gentlemen named J.J. Sullivan and Mike Minnigan, cut the stone and hauled it over from the site of the stone fort just a few blocks away.
And so, dear friend, sometime during your lunchtime jaunt in 2013, take a few minutes to stroll across the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn and visit the local history exhibit. Here’s to the courthouse’s 100th birthday! We should all look so good at that age.