by Debie Oeser Cox, author of Nashville History blog.
How many court buildings have stood on the public square in Nashville? Published sources offer conflicting information, some stating the number as four and others as five. Research in the minute books of the Davidson County Court has provided the following details.
The building of the first Courthouse was authorized by the Davidson County Court at the October Term 1783: “The Court then proceeded to fix on a place for Building of a Courthouse & Prison, and agree that in the present situation of the Settlement that it be at Nashborough and Built at the Expense of the Publick. And that the size of the Courthouse be eighteen feet square in the body with a Leanto Shade of twelve feet on the one side of the length of the House. And that the house be furnished with the necessary benches, Barr, Table &c fit for the Reception of the Court.” In April of 1792 the Court “ordered that David Hay repair the Court house by Making Two Doors well fixed and Hung with three window shutters well hung; and the house Well chinked.”
Davidson County Court minutes of October 15, 1802, page 367, report as follows: “Court adjourns for five minutes, to meet in the new Courthouse. Court met according to adjournment in the New Courthouse where was present . . ..” A further search of Court minutes yields few clues as to the size or type of building. In 1804 the Court ordered the purchasing of a bell for the Courthouse and in 1806 the painting of the roof and steps. In 1822 the Court “ordered that opening at the head of the Stairs be closed, leaving a door there to which he shall have a shutter made and to have the two stoves placed one on each side of the house behind the bar with pipes extending so as to render the house comfortable for the different courts that are to set here during the winter . . ..” In October 1825 a commission was appointed to determine whether the Courthouse could be repaired to make it comfortable enough for the Court to meet in winter or whether it would be necessary to rent a building for the winter.
In January 1826 the acting Justices of the Court met and voted to raise, with a special tax, $15,000 over a period of three years for the purpose of building a courthouse for the county. The Courthouse was finished in late 1829 or early 1830. It is described in Eastin Morris’s Tennessee Gazetteer, 1834: “The Court House which stands on the public square, is a spacious and commodious edifice. It presents a handsome front of 105 feet and is sixty-three feet deep. The basement story contains a number of rooms, designed for public offices, and on the second and third floors there are two rooms forty by sixty feet each, two others thirty-six by forty, and two others twenty-three by forty. The basement story is eleven feet high, and the two principal ones are eighteen feet each, and the height of the whole building to the top of the dome is ninety feet. The foundation and part of the lower story is of fine hewn stone, and the remainder of brick, and the two fronts are ornamented with four white pilasters each, The dome contains a good town clock, and is supported by eight columns of Ionic order.” This Courthouse burned in 1856. The County Court minutes state: “Monday Morning April 14, 1856 Court met pursuant to adjournment at the State House in Nashville (the Court House having been burned down) . . ..”
On May 10, 1856, the Court met in the Market House: “The County Court will build a Courthouse on or near the center of the Public Square in Nashville . . ..” According to County Court minutes, architect W. Francis Strickland, son of William Strickland, designer of the Tennessee State Capitol, was “employed at a salary of one thousand dollars per annum as architect of the court house.” The design chosen by Strickland was very similar to that of the Capitol building designed by his father. The building was to have a basement and three stories above ground, and was to be 118 feet by 72 feet in size. The Court first met in the new building in January 1859. The building was remodeled in 1910 with an additional story added. In 1935 this building, along with the City Hall and Market House, was demolished to make room for a new courthouse.
The present Courthouse was completed in 1937. The architects, Emmons H. Woolwine of Nashville and Frederic C. Hirons of New York, won an architectural competition in 1935 with their Art Deco design. The cornerstone of the building was laid August 10, 1936, and the building was dedicated on December 8, 1937. The general contractor was the J. A. Jones Construction Company. The building is eight stories high and measures 260 feet by 96 feet. The years have taken a toll – the building is in need of repair and the need for space is critical. Mayor Bill Purcell hopes to relieve the crowded conditions in the Courthouse by the construction of a General Sessions-Criminal Court complex, near the Ben West building. Plans are under way for a major renovation of the Courthouse to begin in the spring of 2003. (Article was published in 2002)