When architect R.H. Hunt set about designing and building the Hamilton County Courthouse a century ago, he kept a few parameters in mind: It needed to be simple and square; it needed to face the city center; and — above all — it needed to be fireproof.
That’s because the building’s predecessor, an architectural marvel in its own right, burned in 1910 after being struck by lightning.
Photographs showing the aftermath of the fire, along with other documents highlighting important events in Hamilton County history, hang in an exhibit on the second floor of the courthouse to commemorate the building’s 100th year of operation.
There is some confusion about the building’s actual age, according to Hamilton County spokeswoman Gina Hatler, since its cornerstone was set in place in 1912. But Hatler wants to set the record straight.
“More than 5,000 people attended the formal opening of the courthouse on Nov. 22, 1913. That’s according to the original event’s program,” she says. “The cornerstone was laid in 2012, but the courthouse didn’t actually open until a year later.”
The exhibit, which Hatler researched and compiled over the course of six months — at no cost to taxpayers — will remain on display for all of 2013, with other centennial events to come in November, she says.
“We wanted the centennial [exhibit] to be here and accessible for people, so they can feel like this is really their courthouse,” Hatler says.
While the exhibit is focused on the current courthouse, Hatler says it is important for people to remember the county did not always hold court in Chattanooga, which was once a part of the Cherokee Nation.
The county’s first court proceedings were held in a small log cabin called Poe’s Tavern, in what is now Soddy-Daisy. At that time, Hamilton County only existed north of the Tennessee River, before the Cherokees were removed from south of the river and sent on the Trail of Tears, Hatler says.
“The county seat is in Chattanooga now, but we have to remember Chattanooga is one of nine municipalities. And the county seat was not always here,” Hatler says.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6481.