Georgia’s Beautiful and Historic Courthouses

It began years ago with a big new office and an empty wall. I told my wife Tracy, "I will need to buy some prints." "Why buy prints when you could have [friend and artist] Pat Magers paint something?" she said. But paint what?

It began years ago with a big new office and an empty wall. I told my wife Tracy, “I will need to buy some prints.” “Why buy prints when you could have [friend and artist] Pat Magers paint something?” she said. But paint what?

As a “bond counsel” financing building projects for cities, counties, schools, hospitals and authorities, I quickly settled on gracing my wall with one of Georgia’s beautiful and historic courthouses. But with one wall and 159 county courthouses, how would I choose?

My first step was to grab a point-and-shoot camera and visit Coweta County’s renowned turn-of-the-century courthouse–a hulking, columned, symmetrically four-sided brick structure with a verdigris clock tower looming over a busy central square, surrounded by old oaks every bit as impressive. I took a few shots and was hooked.

But why only Coweta County? What else was possible? I began to take time to visit and shoot other courthouses as my work carried me through the state. Soon I was reading up on photography and Georgia architectural history, and buying a Canon SLR. An avocation was born.

I began to go out of my way to visit courthouses, and found every style imaginable. The Old South is evident in Clinch County and Harris County. There are Victorian wonders in Hancock, Newton and Walton Counties. The old courthouse in Fayette County resembles a country church. There are neo-colonials in Berrien and Macon Counties and something of a Moorish temple in Terrell County. Lowndes County boasts Italianate styling, and Troup County, art deco. Camden and Chatham Counties show Spanish influences and Effingham’s courthouse resembles Monticello. Most popular are the classical-style courthouses, as in Jefferson and Upson Counties, which suggest the majesty of the law. Yet there are also handsome everyday structures like those in Lumpkin, Clay and Banks Counties.

My favorites are the highly detailed Queen Anne courthouses of the late 19th century, and the best example is the 1885 Randolph County courthouse still in use in tiny Cuthbert. Rich Georgia clay formed the brick of this compact structure, symmetrical but for a tall, cone-topped clock and bell tower that rallies the community. Fine craftsmanship and detail is evident from the imaginative brickwork, through the sunburst and tulip motifs in the woodwork, to the terra cotta lizards and curlicues adorning the roof.

With about half of the courthouses under my belt, I could hardly stop. Day and weekend trips were planned to pick up remote county seats. Did you know there is a Fort Gaines (along the Apalachicola), a Lincolnton (along the South Carolina border) and a Woodbine (far southeast corner)? I gave my old camera to my then-young son, Trent, and we embarked on a two-day trip to southwest Georgia. Later, Tracy and I spent a beautiful weekend at the Dawson Street Inn in Thomasville and picked up the counties along the Florida line. On business trips I would dash off on side excursions, anxious to catch one more courthouse before the rain fell or the light failed, often finding myself in the middle of nowhere and too far from home.

Many odd discoveries came in my travels. The Murray County courthouse on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains looks like a Greek temple literally nestled in the mountains. The Crisp County courthouse, which Tracy and I have labeled the oddest, is an ordinary ’60s structure adorned with huge three-dimensional letters spelling out its name. As I sat at a lunch counter across from the Stewart County courthouse having the local specialty, “scrambled dog,” someone parked a sparkling turquoise 1956 Chevy directly between me and the courthouse setting up a perfect “period” photo of Lumpkin, a town time forgot. I love the sign inside that courthouse: “No hanging around the courthouse.”

You don’t need MapQuest to find the courthouse in most county seats. Just aim for the center of activity, the tallest tower or the highest flagpole. I applied this method in remote Baker County with eerie results. My well-honed instinct told me the courthouse would be in a particular direction, but as I proceeded the area became desolate. I found a ghostly Romanesque courthouse on an empty square and finally determined the entire downtown had been ravaged by the 1994 Flint River flood. The courthouse has since been beautifully restored.

Courthouse photographers are under unusual scrutiny these days. My photofinishing orders have come to the attention of the Wolf Camera manager, who has been visited by the FBI about terrorists’ photos. I was recently stopped by a sheriff’s deputy in Ludowici, who thought me a saboteur. “Are you one of those Sea Island protesters?” “No, sir.” “Would you tell me if you were?” “Yes, sir.”

I have added number 159, Echols County (an odd courthouse without a town!), and my collection is complete, but I append to my collection as new courthouses are built in Cherokee, Clayton, Fayette, Douglas, Emanuel, Troup and Screven Counties. Our bond practice group has recently financed new courthouses for Madison and Fannin Counties and renovations in Stewart, Stephens and Dodge Counties.

What about my office wall? I resolved my uncertainty and settled on my adopted hometown courthouse in DeKalb County. My friend Pat painted a wonderful scene of the community gathering for picnics and a concert, based on photos I took following the traditional 4th of July Parade, in which my young family marched for years. The painting is pictured on this page. If you look closely you may see Tracy in the dragon suit in which she once entertained the kids.

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