Sunday, January 8, 2012

History: Old Courthouse Museum Is Full of It

Before you travel outside of Douglas County to soak in a little history try stopping by Douglasville's own museum housed in the old courthouse located at 6754 West Broad Street in downtown Douglasville.

The old courthouse building is only fifty-five years old which in the whole scheme of history makes it a fairly young building, but once the Douglas County Courthouse moved to Hospital Drive some notation in the location had to be made so people  wouldn't arrive at the wrong place to file a deed, pay a fine, or get a copy of a birth certificate.

Since 2002, the old courthouse building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building passed muster to be added to the prestigious list because it was built in the International Style of architecture, a style that actually emerged in the 1920s and 30s and matured during World War II. Books regarding architecture advise the style characteristics include square or rectangle footprints and all facades have 90 degree angles.Building elements are made up of cubes. Even the windows tend to run in broken horizontal rows and forms grids.

The International Style is not without critics. Many call the structures ugly or sterile. Our 1956 courthouse certainly stands out among the older style buildings in downtown historic district, but I tend to like the clean lines the building possesses. From the Broad Street entrance the structure appears to have only one level, but it actually is a two-story structure with 52 rooms and over 36,000 square feet.

The spot where the Old Courthouse Museum sits today is the location of three previous Douglas County courthouses including the 1896 courthouse that burned. The Georgia Info website provides more information regarding the old courthouse and the move to today's Hospital Drive location.

Whether you like the International Style of architecture or not, our community owes a great deal of gratitude to the local Tourism and History Commission for convincing county government to save the old courthouse from demolition and to use the structure as a museum space. We have allowed too many structures to disappear from our past, and it's refreshing to know there are groups who will fight to save it.

From the museum's webpage:

The Douglas County Tourism and History Commission persuaded the Board of Commissioners to  save the building because of its unique architectural style and for use by the community. The old courthouse now houses the Douglas County Museum of History and Art which contain rotating exhibits of mid-20th century items from private collections to reflect the 1956 date of the courthouse.

Not too long ago I stopped by just to see what the building and museum had to offer, and for close to three hours I was enthralled as I went from room to room. I was amazed at the wealth of artifacts and information the museum contains. Steve Lawler stepped in as my guide, and I was more than impressed with his wealth of knowledge regarding the museum collections and Douglas County history in general.'

The Douglas County Museum of History and Art is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 5 p.m., but special arrangements can be made for groups who wish to tour at other times. School groups from the local area tour the museum as well as various club groups.

In the lobby you will find an exhibit regarding past time capsules that were stored in prior courthouse buildings.

Many of the collections the museum houses are on loan from area residents who are generous enough to allow the public to view their items. Some of the exhibits are quite extensive such as the Coca-Cola exhibit which contains several hundred pieces of memorabilia. Some of the items I recognized from my childhood while other advertisements, bottles, and promotional items were from the earliest days of the company.

I really connected with the lunch box collection and quickly picked out the designs I carried to school as a young girl. I was amazed to see older forms of lunch pails that were used in the 19th century by mill workers and other laborers.

The children's record player collection also elicited a squeal of delight from me as I recognized many designs my friends owned including the round plastic containers we used to store our 45 rpm records. You didn't attend a slumber party without taking along your own 45 collection so the tunes could be played all night long!

One exhibit that taught me a thing or two was the TV lamp exhibit. These lamps were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s. During the early days of television it was generally felt having a lamp on while watching television would help the viewer from damaging his or her eyes. The light from the lamp would diffuse the light from the television. TV lamps don't have shades like regular lamps. A bulb is located behind it, so it actually casts a light on the wall behind the TV. The lamps came in all sorts of designs and apparently are very collectible.

While the museum collection mainly contains items that are contemporary to the building's time period, there is an exhibit dedicated specifically to Douglasville history where one of the first traffic signals in the downtown area can be seen along with many other artifacts dating back to our earliest settlers. One area contains many articles from R.L. Cousins High School which existed in the county during the struggle for civil rights and before integration.

Other exhibits include medical items and the desk of Dr. Claude Vansant, one of the county's first medical doctors, and an extensive collection from the Clinton farm including many household items and furnishings. Today the Clinton farm is owned by Douglas County and is part of Clinton Nature Preserve. If you are into music you will want to see the piano once used by Alabama's Jeff Cook and Jerry Lee Lewis.

I enjoyed my time at the museum very much.. In fact, the only reason why I left was because they were turning the lights off and locking the doors!

I highly recommend every citizen of Douglas County stop by and soak in a little history.

You can reach the Douglas County Museum of History and Art by email or phone:  info@douglascountymuseum.com, 770-949-4090

This post first appeared at Douglasville Patch on April 4, 2011.

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