“We should try to visualize that landscape of colonial Virginia as a vast forest.”
—John Brinkerhoff Jackson, Landscape in Sight: Looking at America
Thus the eminent and pioneering historian and writer J.B. Jackson began his seminal essay on the nineteenth-century rural American landscape, transitioning from the preceding chapter of his book where he considered the contributions of Virginia to how we live in America, especially rural America. The yeoman farmer of New England and his like-minded townspeople had their town green, a park in the center of town where the courthouse, school, and churches were located. The approach was sensible but with a couple hitches: for one, you had to live right in or very near town for it to be effective, to make use of the splendid green on a routine basis. For another, it provided the town with control of the schoolhouse and tacit ownership, socially at least, of the church house as well. It was an arrangement suited to the New Englander’s trajectory of thinking, to a concept of homogenous unity and the town being superior to its surrounding countryside—to the idea that, as a family became more successful, moving to town was an ambitious way of showing that achievement.
Not quite so for the Southerner, however. In the South, communities were more spread out and few were what we today would consider as “towns.” More were simply villages or clusters of homes, farms, and perhaps a church and general store. Southerners were either fiercely independent Appalachian folk of Scots-Irish descent who distrusted centralized governmental authority or planters who had wealth and plantations large enough to function as their own basic communities. Sending children into the nearest county seat for school was far less favored than having small, local one- or two-room schoolhouses. The county seat often was too far away for a daily commute, plus many people distrusted leaving control of education to the “government” even if it was pretty much local government.
Thus the school, like the church, was an ultra-local institution, as was the general store which provisioned staples such as coffee, salt, sugar, cloth for sewing clothing, and other items that could not be produced on the farm itself (unlike most vegetables and meats, which were). County seats began as the “seat of court,” and sometimes it was little more than an actual courthouse—often a humble structure little different from a typical home—located at a central place or at the convergence of major roads within the county. In Virginia especially, the seat of court was often named after the county with “courthouse” in the name, such as in “Prince Edward Courthouse,” and often the building even from early days was an impressive one of brick or stone, even if there was hardly anything at all surrounding it. In this regard it mimicked the other type of edifice of the time and place to be built in such a manner, the plantation home. While the grand architecture of the plantation showed the wealth and influence of the noted planter, the courthouse provided the government with equal billing in visual terms.
Thus these towns began often not as towns at all but simply no more than a village which grew up with a courthouse, but over time understandably the county seat grew into the largest community in most counties and a center of business as people came to court on business and found it convenient to do other business and shopping while “in town.” Unlike Virginia, in Florida and Georgia courthouses often were humble timber-frame structures, which often were also the home to the judge or other officials (one historical example is Lafayette County, Florida). While not born with a town green, most of these communities got a courthouse square as they grew, and the courthouse itself was replaced with a more official and stately structure.
The difference between the New England town green and the courthouse square may seem trivial—they both are basically parks in the center of town, aren’t they?—but it is not. The green was planned, often at the very origins of the New England township as a public space. It was designed to be shared land that could be used for anything from grazing animals (for those who lacked pastures of their own) to the presentation of a public lecture or sermon for a crowd too large to fit in the church house.
The courthouse square in due contrast began in the South as basically the yard around the courthouse. In other words, as the courthouse became a more purpose-built structure, the plot of land it sat on grew into a grassy yard, often actually square in shape, surrounding the courthouse. Events such as Fourth of July celebrations might take place there, even if it were not exactly a community space in the same sense as meant today. However, as the court attracted people from all around the county on their governmental business, the streets surrounding the courthouse square were soon occupied with law offices, shops, and other businesses—including restaurants, catering to the lawyers and others at the court. And so before long the “courthouse square” is where you would find the greatest concentration of businesses in the county.
In time, in many rural Southern locales, the county seat—and more specifically the courthouse square—was where you found the dentist, a couple of doctors, the insurance man, maybe the car dealership, and stores that carried a greater variety of goods than the small “country stores” farming communities would have. If you needed anything from a tooth filled to a new piano, you came “to town” to the county seat for it, and that as much as anything was the basis for many prosperous decades of American enterprise and a robust economy.
The actual architecture of county courthouses from the nineteenth and early twentieth century varied greatly in style, but a few key themes can be found. For one, the mission of making the courthouse appear “imposing” was foremost in the minds of many architects and was often accomplished with a fusion of Italian Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Greek Revival/Federal Style. This is easy to discern in courthouses such as those of Citrus County, Florida; Lowndes County, Georgia; Giles County, Virginia; Suwannee County, Florida; and elsewhere. Due to the confluence of styles, a general semiotic idea of the “courthouse style” came about in the layman’s mind: grand pillars, large steps leading up to a central double door, construction with granite, marble floors, and perhaps most of all, in the South, a cupola crowning the edifice. Other civic buildings often took cues from the courthouse, either aping its style or searching for a grand articulation in their own architecture: in Statesville, North Carolina, the local city hall is a resplendent example of Romanesque Revival architecture in contrast to the county courthouse’s Neoclassicism.
Courthouses came to represent also the identity of their county, becoming tangible focal points for government and community pride. Some, such as the Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville, Georgia, are reminders of key history of the region: Louisville was planned as Georgia’s new capital to replace the colonial capital of Savannah (and for a brief period, Augusta) and served as such from 1796 to 1806. It was here that the Yazoo Land Fraud took place, and today a marker stands in the courthouse square to testify to this intriguing piece of history.
Many Southern courthouses are also the locus of a monument to local soldiers lost in the Civil War or other wars. In Valdosta, Georgia, the old Lowndes County Courthouse is now a museum, but the Civil War memorial still stands proudly at one corner. In similar style, at the Giles County-Virginia Courthouse a memorial stands to the side of the building, set off by an expansive frontal lawn. This lawn, as with many rural courthouses, separates the courthouse from the street, adding to its imposing and grand status as the most important of local government buildings and setting the visual and spatial tone for the surrounding area.
While it’s fully possibly to have a square without a lawn, the lawn is an enduring choice for many counties. Some, however, such as the Columbia County (Florida) Courthouse square in Lake City, have elected to pave their square with paths and set ornamental plants in beds instead. Regardless, the idea of a separation from the ordinary street-facing commercial building remains. These spaces are often decorated for the winter holidays and are sites of various commemorations and visual spectacles of civic significance. The courthouse does not just inhabit space, it creates and defines it.
SEE MORE SOUTHERN COURTHOUSE SQUARE PHOTOS HERE: