(On Saturday, June 29, 2013 from 7pm to 10pm, the present Hamilton County Courthouse will be given a centennial tribute. Chattanooga’s big band, Sweet Georgia Sound, will perform. There will be a laser show. For more information on the event, visit http://www.hamiltontn.gov/centennial/. The following is a Memories article that I wrote in 2004 about the courthouse.)
Among Chattanooga’s stately older structures is the Hamilton County Courthouse, which is atop Walnut Hill in the 600 block between Georgia Avenue and Walnut Street. The courthouse was designed by Reuben H. Hunt, who was the architect of numerous downtown buildings. Constructed of Tennessee gray marble with a magnificent dome, and shaded in spring and summer by a grove of tall trees, it has long been a familiar scene in the Fountain Square district. However, it is not the first courthouse to occupy that address.
Hamilton County was created by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1819 from lands that were formerly part of Rhea County. The seat of county government changed addresses in sync with the Euro-American settling of the area, moving from Daisy to Dallas to Harrison before landing at Chattanooga in 1870. County government was conducted for a few years at the James Hall (northeast corner of Market and Sixth), and then at a former Civil War prison (southwest corner of Market and Fourth Streets).
Hamilton’s leaders decided in 1877 to build a courthouse, and purchased three properties in the aforementioned Walnut Hill block. A. C. Bruce was selected as architect, and Patton and McInturf were general contractors Construction of the courthouse was completed in 1879, having been slowed due to yellow fever in the community. It was built during a time when the look of Chattanooga changed from that of a frontier river town to one that reflected the booming industrial economy.
The courthouse was built at a cost of $65,000, and included several features not seen in previous homes of county government. The main entrance along Walnut Street featured ornamented limestone arches and columns. A limestone retaining wall formed the perimeter of the property. Most striking was a clock facing four directions from atop a 120-foot tower, with a bell and mechanism that weighed 4,600 pounds. The sound of the bell could be heard throughout the city. On the ceiling of the circuit court room, fresco artist C. A. Neddermeyer painted numerous angelic figures, with their faces being those of the children of judges and the building committee. Some county residents, particularly those who still lived in log homes, criticized the lavishness of the new courthouse. Across Walnut Street from the courthouse, a new jail was erected in 1881. The courthouse was enlarged through an 1891 remodeling.
.On the evening of May 7, 1910, a thunderstorm rolled through the valley. In a scene reminiscent of the ending of “Back to the Future,” lightning struck the Hamilton County Courthouse, and a fire erupted. Perhaps the clock tower and the tall trees had been too easy a target for the thunderbolts. The city’s firemen rushed to fight the blaze as the storm continued around them. The May, 8, 1910 Chattanooga Times reported the events very eloquently: “Not content with the havoc she had wrought in setting fire thus thoroughly, Dame Nature continued her manifestations well through the period in which the firemen were working desperately against odds, with thousands of excited people thronging on all sides to watch them and the flames.” In case that the fire spread across the street to the jail, additional security was deployed. In a final act of the calamitous evening, the courthouse clock – described in the report as “that four-faced, almost human thing” – sounded its final bell at 10:00pm. The bell then dropped into a growing pile of debris.
A crowd continued to mill about the fire scene the next day. Unlike fires that destroyed other county courthouses, most of the valuable records of Hamilton County escaped the blaze. The City of Chattanooga offered its new municipal building as a temporary courthouse. Comments by county officials suggest that they were considering a new courthouse even before the fire. One judge noted that he was tired of having to go up and down the steep interior staircase. Plans were soon made for a new, more elaborate courthouse at the same site as the old. While its predecessor was built for $65,000, the new one cost over $350,000. The new Hamilton County Courthouse, which is still in use today, was dedicated in 1913.
If you have questions or comments about the history of Hamilton County courthouses, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com.