American architect Louis Kahn said, “A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.”
Kahn could have been talking about the Hamilton County Courthouse, which will celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2013. In the century since court was first held within its Tennessee gray marble walls, countless people have passed through its doors seeking justice while innumerable judges and other servants of the law have spent their lives addressing their pleas.
To honor not just the Hamilton County Courthouse but also the people who have provided its heartbeat, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is preparing a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the building. Several events are planned throughout the upcoming year – including a Christmas Open House this December, an Armed Forces Day Celebration in May and Fourth of July festivities on the courthouse lawn that will include a laser light show and several hours of patriotic and swing music. Coppinger is also planning a mini-museum featuring photographs of the current courthouse and its predecessors.
The current courthouse is the seventh building to serve as Hamilton County’s hub of legal activity. Prior to its construction, the county held court at locations ranging from a tavern to a grand building that stood on the grounds of the present structure.
An act of the Thirteenth Tennessee General Assembly meeting in Murfreesboro on October 25, 1819 created Hamilton County. The law designated Charles Gamble, Robert Patterson and William Lauderdale as commissioners to choose a place to hold court. The commissioners selected Poe’s Tavern, which was centrally located and was a familiar meeting place.
The courts were later moved about a mile away to the farm of John Mitchell. Next, a log courthouse was built at the Rawlings place at Dallas, the community named for Alexander James Dallas, secretary of the treasury in the administration of President James Madison. In 1840, the county seat was moved across the river to Harrison.
When Chattanooga was selected as the county seat in 1870, James Hall at Sixth and Market Streets was put to use as the courthouse. Later, the court was moved to an old brick building on Fourth and Market that had served as a prison during the Civil War. In 1879, a striking new courthouse was erected on the hill by Georgia Avenue, Walnut Street and Sixth and Seventh Streets. Featuring a 6,000-pound clock in an ornate four-sided tower, marble-top wash stands and large potbelly stoves, it was considered a masterpiece.
This courthouse burned on May 8, 1910 when lightning struck its clock tower at 9:40 p.m. Though engulfed in fire, the tower clock struck 10 p.m. on the dot as its final hail to Chattanooga before tumbling to the ground in a mass of charred metal.
On June 21, 1911, county officials selected Reuben Harrison Hunt as the architect for the new courthouse, to be built on the same site. The current courthouse celebrated its grand opening on November 22, 1913. A full band played outside throughout the day and then moved to the assembly hall on the third story, where the Clerk and Master’s office is located. During the speeches that followed, one judge said the courthouse would “serve its people for half a century.”
The Hamilton County Courthouse has already doubled its life expectancy and is still going strong. To honor the work of the man who created a building that has provided “unmeasurable” service to its county, the court is on the National Register of Historic Places.
To assist with the cost of the centennial celebration, the county is extending sponsorship opportunities to the local legal community. Firms interested in participating should contact either Lynda Hood at the Chattanooga Bar Association (423-756-3222) or Sherry Sorkness in Judge Jeff Hollingsworth’s office (423-209-6760).
The history of the courthouses was drawn from documents the office of the mayor provided.