Arguably no Alabama courthouse is better known nor more frequently visited-especially by those not on legal business-than the Monroe County Courthouse, built in 1903. The fame that Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has brought to the building has attracted thousand of the novel's admirers to tour it.
Prior to the construction of this courthouse, Monroe County had lived a long time with its first "permanent" courthouse, the two-story unpretentious rectangular brick building that had served since the original log structure was replaced in the 1830s. To match its ambitions for the new twentieth-century world, Monroe needed an up-to-date courthouse, it seemed to the county's leaders, and to Probate Judge Nicholas J. Stallworth in particular. It had to be efficient for the growing county administration and handsome to impress visitors and prospective contributors to the county's population and wealth. From the designs submitted, the county commissioners decided the work of architect Andrew J. Bryan provided just what they required. As an architect working out of Atlanta, Bryan had designed many courthouses, including the impressive Lee County courthouse in Opelika and the nearby Muscogee County courthouse in Columbus, Georgia. Following Bryan's move to New Orleans, his commissions in the .Monroe County neighborhood included the Dale County courthouse in Ozark and the Coffee County courthouse in Elba.
The magnificently proportioned dome of the Monroe County Courthouse may be its most striking feature, but the design provided by Bryan gave the building two more unusual exterior features. Rather than centering a principal entrance on the main facade, he placed two entrances at forty-five degree angles to the street elevation, making the building appear from the front to be three arms of a Greek cross. From the sides (though one side is now obscured by a modern addition), Bryan did not attach the fourth arm of the cross, but instead designed a large oval structure, embedded between the front cross and a smaller rectangular rear structure. This, then, is the Bryan program-cross, oval, rectangle-as one proceeds from front to rear through the building's shapes.
From his offices in New Orleans, Bryan wrote to Judge Stallworth in Monroeville:
"I am sending by to-days express a set of plans and specifications of your new Court House . .. . The plans as they are now finished, I think, make the nicest and most beautiful Court House that was ever built in the State of Alabama, and I am sure that you will all be highly pleased with it."
After the passing of a century since the building was finished, it remains an important landmark, if for nothing else than its literary fame. And although we cannot be entirely sure how much admiration it received or how well it worked as a courthouse, it was with evident satisfaction that the Monroe Journal published this report in its October 29, 1903, issue:
"[The Monroe County} court house now in progress of construction will be an ornament to the county, and so handsome and massive a structure should be regarded a tower of strength to the good people, and a menace to the wrong doers and should awaken an amount of pride in all to stimulate the better element in every nature into activity, and with a forward march of progress and action redeem the reputation of one of the best counties in Alabama."
This feature was previously published in Issue 69, Summer 2003.
About the Author
Delos D. Hughes is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University and divides his time between Lexington, Virginia, and his hometown, Auburn, Alabama.