By Barbara Harrington
On July 6, 1857, the cornerstone for the Monroe County Courthouse was laid. The event was heralded by a large group of citizens come to witness the laying of the cornerstone of “the great Temple of Justice,” quoted from The Sunny South newspaper. The Monroe Riflemen formed in front of the Commercial Hotel, soon joined by a large procession of Masons. With the Aberdeen Brass Band leading the procession, everyone moved to the courthouse site, where Columbus Sykes Esq., on behalf of the Masonic Order, laid the cornerstone. Many memorials of the day and time were deposited in the cornerstone.
Courthouse plans were drawn by James Beatty, and the contract for construction was awarded to Colonel T.J. Davidson, for the sum of $34,000. Added to this was work on the cupola, gallery, etc., bringing the total to $37,012.
The cornerstone was removed on April 8, 1938, when the east wall was reconstructed. Dr. W.A. Evans and Aberdeen Examiner editor H.B. Sanders examined the moldy records and tarnished coins, medals and other items deposited in the stone.
At the time the courthouse was built, the board of supervisors was known as the board of police, and that group wanted a clock added to the structure and proposed paying two-thirds of the cost, with the city of Aberdeen paying the rest, as long as it cost no more than $1,200. The cost was $800. A bell, weighing more than 1,000 pounds, was supplied by Lann and Carter Hardware Company, successful bidder on the project. It was considered one of the largest bells in the state and claims were made that it could be heard five miles on a calm day.
That original bell was replaced in 1895, also by Lann and Carter.
From 1857, when the courthouse was finished, until about 1866, it was surrounded by columns which supported the roof of a wide portico. The columns were large, made of brick and covered with cement plaster, and there certainly must have been a column for each pilaster, or 24 in all. Eventually, the pillars of columns and the wooden porch roof deteriorated to such a point that it was decided that this part of the courthouse had to go. The piazza was paved with bricks as were the interior hallways on the ground floor and certain areas outside on the south and west sides.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History, in 1978, on its National Register nominating form, called the courthouse an outstanding example of a Greek Revival public building. One evidence of this is its main entrance located on the short end. The influence of elements of Egyptian architecture is reflected in the courthouse interior, which utilizes Egyptian pylon architraves and column capitals. Originally set on brick piers, the foundation is now concrete. Windows on the first floor contain six-over-six sash; those on the second floor, nine-over-nine sash. All windows are capped by peaked cast-iron lintels. On the second floor, four larger doorways with matching surrounds open onto cast-iron balconies sheltered by wooden brackets. The clock tower was adorned with fluted Ionic columns and paneled pilasters.
As originally built, the courthouse followed a four-room, center-hall plan with three crossing halls. Various interior alterations have been made, however, to meet increased space requirements. Located in the front and rear crossing halls were four stairways, one at each corner of the building. Only one of these remains intact; the others now accommodate bathroom facilities, storage room and elevator
Evidence has now been found which indicates that this building was, indeed, finished off with the pillared portico that the architectural historians thought that it should have had. It truly did follow the classic Greek temple plan, and at its beginnings was known by some as “The Court House Palace.” It was a palace in proportion as well as in appointments.
A newspaper article of the past said “the upstairs courtroom alone furnishes ample reason for preservation…The fluted support columns running through the big room, the seven octagonal dropped mouldings where chandeliers once hung, and the tiny railed judge’s bench with its separate open-fire grate make a priceless contribution to local history.”
In 1901, a one-story brick wing was added to the north side of the main block, and a two-story stucco wing was added to the south side in 1941.
In 1906, the steps leading into the courthouse were removed. Since stock was no longer allowed to run freely in the city, the fence around the entire square was removed. An 1878 news article said, “We regretted to observe on Tuesday morning that the stray goats of the city take refuge in rainy weather in the courthouse.
In 1971, the front lawn of the courthouse was converted into a large, paved parking lot.
The courtroom and related court areas originally covered the second floor, with much of the original space remaining but not visible because of remodeling. The original balcony also remained but had been partitioned away from the courtroom and used for mechanical equipment and storage. The courtroom had been subdivided and remodeled and had consequently lost its historic character. The courtroom sides had been subdivided and partitioned to provide offices and other rooms, with the remaining courtroom reduced to less than half of its original space.
This current renovation that has just been completed restored the courtroom to its original size and grandeur – opening up the balcony on the third floor – and made it a more acoustically viable setting for the carrying out of justice.