As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, May 30, 2011
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
“Now how about a better courthouse,” headlined the Rutherford Courier in April 1937.
Focusing on the Depression Era square, the local newspaper observed: “A bare, worn, dusty surface is what we call the courthouse yard … the sole bench looks more like a one-pole chicken roost … The inside of the courthouse is in keeping with the so-called lawn. And what’s more, it smells bad.”
In December 1936, Rutherford County Judge John D. Wiseman called a meeting of Quarterly Court members and the general public to determine the future of the deteriorated courthouse. The intent was to develop a definite plan for consideration by the county’s governing body in January 1937.
Three options were identified before the meeting:
(1) An immediate renovation funded half by the federal Public Works Administration. This would involve interior renovation and the construction of two “annexes” at a cost of about $33,000. Use of federal funds would require that the work be completed by July 1937.
(2) Immediate demolition of the current structure and construction of a new courthouse at a cost to the county of some $22,000 plus federal assistance.
(3) Demolition and construction of a new courthouse, but not immediately. This would involve a new tax to pay off outstanding bonds, and then another bond issue to raise $100,000 for a new courthouse without federal assistance.
The meeting of citizens and county officials produced a consensus that the old courthouse should be replaced. George Waller, a Nashville architect, had studied the old structure and advised that “money spent on the present building would be practically wasted.”
Local Little Gardens Club member Mary B. Fox said that she had come to the meeting believing that the historic building should be preserved, but after hearing the discussion was convinced that the present structure, “although meaning much to the history of the county, was in the same era as hoopskirts and should be discarded.”
Judge George Cranor explained that his interest in the historic building was because his father rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest “on his famous charge down East Main Street to liberate Confederates held in the courthouse.” Nevertheless, he “realized that it would be impractical to remodel such a structure.” He further noted that remodeling funds had been spent in the past with little effect and “there was no use doing so again.”
Others at the meeting expressing similar views included Dr. P. A. Lyon, president of State Teachers College; Joseph Holman and Don Southgate, Nashville architects; Mrs. Albert King Jr., president of the Little Gardens club; Mrs. J.W. Fletcher and Mrs. David Goldstein. The several garden club representatives announced that the club project to plant and beautify the courthouse yard would be postponed pending new construction.
It was finally proposed that Judge Wiseman should appoint a committee of 10 (five squires and five citizens from local civic groups) to inspect modern courthouses in Tennessee and neighboring states, and to make a specific recommendation at the January session of the Quarterly Court.
On Dec. 31, 1936, the courthouse committee chaired by James D. Richardson released its written report. It concluded that “further expense in repair or remodeling of the present building would be impracticable, unwise and a waste of money.” The recommendation was for destruction of the old courthouse and construction of a new facility that would also house Murfreesboro city offices and a fourth floor jail. The projected cost was $250,000 with federal funds covering 45% of the cost. The county’s share would be $118,250 and the city would be asked to pay about $20,000.
The committee found that a new jail was “essential” and that about half of the estimated $40,000 cost for a free-standing jail could be saved by including it in a modern courthouse. It was also estimated that the city could recover about half of its share by selling the City Hall at 129 East Main Street. The committee report also cautioned that the opportunity for federal funding would be lost if not promptly committed.
But within 24 hours of the release of the committee report, county leaders advised that the governing body of the county, the Quarterly Court, “would not take responsibility of voting for a new courthouse with the additional taxes that it would take.” The only alternative would be to get citizen approval by voter referendum.
A voter referendum, however, required authorization by the court or from the state legislature. On January 4, the Quarterly Court on a tie vote failed to authorize a referendum. A few days later, Sam B. Davis, the Rutherford County representative in the state legislature, advised that he did not expect to submit proposed legislation authorizing a referendum.
Despite continuing citizen concern and editorial support, a year passed without any further official action on the courthouse recommendations. The only activity was an attempt by merchants on the square to plant grass around the courthouse “to keep down the dust that causes great damage to store stocks.”
Finally, on January 7, 1938, the Quarterly Court voted a $5,000 budget for certain courthouse renovation including in particular “removal of the men’s restroom from the interior of the courthouse to a place either outside or under the building.” Additionally, five dollars a week was appropriated “to employ additional help for the janitor of the courthouse,” and it was decided that the building would be closed from Saturday night until Monday morning. The opportunity to get federal funding for courthouse construction or remodeling was lost.
Due to Depression Era economics, the threat of war and the political unwillingness to add to the local tax burden, the historic, 80-year-old courthouse survived this first call for demolition.
In the late 1950s, space problems again prompted proposals to demolish and build anew.
But this time there was organized opposition from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Daughters of the American Revolution and other historical groups. The decision was made to renovate the courthouse interior and add two annexes (10 new rooms in what is today called the north and south courthouse “wings”) at a cost of $65,000. (This was basically what had been proposed and rejected 20 years earlier.)
The long-term fate of the courthouse was finally settled in the 1970s. The decision then was that all judicial functions and most of the county offices would move to other facilities. The courthouse was restored to its original grandeur housing only the legislative body, the trustee and the county executive. Yet even in the decade of the American Bicentennial, restoration and preservation was not an easy sell, but that’s another story.
Greg Tucker can be reached at email@example.com.