Reviewed by Julia Jordan Weller
If the walls of courthouses could talk, they would whisper the experiences of those who worked, litigated, and governed over the last 150 years or more. Some courtrooms have evolved from open air forums, such as those held in Wedowee until 1836, to some of the grand domed buildings that seem to radiate the authority of the court.
Author Delos Hughes escorts the reader through a journey stopping in each Alabama County, beginning from the outset of Alabama’s judicial history. Hughes explores Alabama’s earliest architectural expressions of justice, ranging from log cabins to Neoclassical Revival. He notes that courthouses often reflect through their architecture a sense of presence and the ideals of the communities which built them. These elements not only demonstrate the artistic preferences of the county, but also tell stories about the county’s politics, economies, class structures, and ethnic backgrounds.
Hughes writes, for instance, that the courthouse built in Baldwin County in Daphne, Alabama, and designed by the famous architects Frank Lockwood and Benjamin Bosworth Smith, “conveyed permanence, stability, seriousness—just the message that Bay Minette wanted to convey.” Of the Bibb County 1902 Courthouse, Hughes states, “the building conveys an impression for ecclesiastical rather than governmental or administrative or political.”
Interestingly, in Centre, Alabama, in Cherokee County, fire consumed two courthouses: one in 1882 and, later, the successor that was built in 1895. Thus, “befitting a facility so prone to burning, the commanding architectural feature” of the 1896 Cherokee County Courthouse included a bell tower to alert citizens of any further fire dangers.
A photograph of the Wilcox County Courthouse of 1859 depicts a grand Greek Revival building with fluted Doric columns and exterior iron stairs to the second floor courtroom. In contrast, a simple white board fence surrounds the majestic building, apparently for the practical purpose of keeping the livestock, which roamed freely through the streets, from wandering into the courthouse. The image creates an ironic contrast between the community ideals and perceptions against the backdrop of the county’s practical economic realities.
With witty dialogue and interesting insight, this collection of history and photographs is a must for any individual involved in litigation throughout this great state. Having handled litigation in nearly every county, I can say what a treasure this book would have been in my earlier years of law practice.
Hughes’s book provides a new set of viewing glasses to observe the personality and expressions fused into Alabama’s earliest judicial architecture. These historical backdrops shed both a serious and whimsical light on the buildings, some of which still exist, as well as on the tales of Alabamians—their roots, experiences and growth. Historic Alabama Courthouses is a delightful necessity for any Alabama lawyer and a guilty pleasure for lovers of the courtroom.