Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Man Who Designed Courthouses

I have  been in love with small town courthouses since I was a little girl.   I love the similarities and differences in architecture, I love the stories regarding the folks who worked in the building, the records the building holds and the life and death decisions made in them, and I love the attention the building garners just because it’s in the middle of town.  

Simply put,,.. in my opinion …courthouses make a town

Wilbur W. Caldwell states it best in his book The Courthouse and the Depot:  The Architecture of Hope in an Age of Despair when he states, “Courthouses, more than any other building of the era [between 1870 and 1910] symbolize the aspirations and the collective self-image of the people of these towns.”

Caldwell continues, “Architecture supplies us with a direct conduit to the spirit  of the past….These structures sing to us in rhythms of hope and pride and sweat, dirges of ruin and failure and dashed dreams, anthems of triumph, broken waltzes of irony.  In short they sing for us the music of history.”

The music of history? 

Yes!   I certainly believe they do, and while we have a wonderful Douglas County Courthouse on Hospital Drive and the 1956 Courthouse was preserved as a museum for county history I still mourn for the loss of our 1896 Courthouse.  

Douglas County Courthouse, 1896.   Burned 1956.
Yes, I never walked through its hallways, never had any county business to conduct there, I was never even able to drive by the building since it burned in 1956, but I mourn for it.   I wish the grand old building still graced our courthouse square in the downtown commercial district, and I often wonder how different things might be.

Earlier this week when I was perusing through my pages and pages of notes I have regarding Douglas County history my eyes lingered on one paragraph.   I had written, “The arrival of the Georgia Pacific Railroad in 1882 brought the usual clamor regarding a new courthouse.  In 1884, the Grand Jury suggested that the old courthouse, which was only a few years old, ‘was in bad shape and perhaps dangerous’ and recommended that the building be ‘bolted and banded without delay.’   Local legend holds that the bricks for the building had been improperly fire, some say owing to alcohol induced negligence on the park of the local brick maker…It would be twelve years before Andrew Bryan’s new courthouse finally rose.”

Andrew Bryan.   I’d never really paid much attention to the name.   I wondered to myself who he was.

Hmmm…’s always the little things that grab my attention and send me down the rabbit hole most folks refer to as research.    I spent about twelve hours trying to find everything I could about Mr. Bryan.

I’ve actually found quite a bit about the man who designed Douglas County’s 1896 courthouse….sometimes referred to as Andrew J. Bryan & Co. or Andrew J. Bryan, or even Andrew Jackson Bryan.  I’ve found courthouse records that state he was from Atlanta, Missouri, New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi and then I finally tracked him to Chico, California……I think.

Let’s just say that Mr. Bryan was a busy architect and got around after he was born in 1848 in Monroe, Missouri. 
Besides designing our 1896 courthouse here in Douglas County he designed several others around the state as well as buildings all across the South.   Unfortunately, like our own 1896 Courthouse many of the examples of Mr. Bryan’s designs succumbed to fire, but thankfully I found some old photos.

One of the earliest mentions of A.J. Bryan was found in the History of Butte County by George Campbell Mansfield regarding the history of Chico, California.   Mansfield states  A.J. Bryan was on the city council for Chico February 3, 1886 through 1890 when he resigned.   Perhaps he resigned because he knew he would be out of town often checking on the construction of his designs.

While serving on the Chico City Council Bryan designed and served as the supervising contractor for the Normal School on the campus of Chico University in September, 1887. Per this website the building was a large brick building, consisting of three stories and full basement.  It was of Romanesque design with Elizabethan gables and artificial stone trimmings…On August 12, 1927 fire destroyed the building leaving only a skeleton of brick walls. 

Debra Moon in Chico:  Life and Times of a City of Fortune advises “The location of the Normal School Teachers College in Chico was a consolation prize for the citizenry who had worked so hard on the county seat issue.   A group of 15 prominent citizens from Chico went to work to convince the legislators to choose Chico including [Mr. Bryan].”  Today, Chico University is California State University.

Chico University's Normal School, 1887
Caldwell advises A.J. Bryan designed at least eight courthouses in Georgia proving himself to be a versatile innovator on varied projects. The Douglas County Courthouse was one of his earliest projects in Georgia along with the Stewart County Courthouse in 1895 located in Lumpkin, Georgia.   It was destroyed by fire in 1922.

Stewart County Courthouse, 1895
A.J. Bryan also designed the Muscogee County Courthouse in 1895.   Per Caldwell, “The up-to-date styling of Bryan’s design at Columbus points directly to a remarkably progressive spirit in that city.    The architectural style of court buildings of this period were driven more by local hopes and attitudes than it was by the artistic tastes and convictions of the architects who designed them.”  The building survived until 1972 when the building was demolished.

Apparently Mr. Bryan was applying to design courthouses all over Georgia.  American Architect and Architecture for October 3, 1896 advised Bryan’s company had plans to build a new courthouse in McDonough, Georgia.  A month later The Henry County Weekly advised Bryan had been employed to inspect the old courthouse, but apparently his designs didn’t meet their expectations since another architect by the name of James Golucke got the Henry County nod.

Engineering News-Record in January, 1897 advised Bryan had designed the new courthouse in Randolph County, Alabama located in Wedowee.    Sadly that building was destroyed by fire in 1940.   It had so much more character that the Randolph County Courthouse does today.

A.J. Bryan was creating a name for himself.  He was mentioned in the Atlanta paper, The Constitution, in 1897.   The paper advised Bryan’s work was confined almost exclusively to courthouses and other public buildings throughout the southern states, and that the firm had plans for a number of county courthouses throughout Georgia in hand and would deliverer them within the next few weeks…as soon as the weather will permit. 

The year 1900 saw the courthouse in Coffee County completed, but like the others it no longer survives.  It was destroyed by fire in 1938.

Coffee County Courthouse, 1900
The Colquitt County Courthouse at Moultrie followed in 1903 and he also designed the Troup County Courthouse in 1904.   Over 600,000 bricks from Trimble Brick Company of Hogansville were used to build Bryan’s design in LaGrange.

In 1936, the building caught fire.   Two women died.   Few records were destroyed in the fire, however, because citizens formed a line and passed the documents and docket books from one to the other until most of the papers were removed from the building.

Colquitt County Courthouse, 1903

Troup County Courthouse, 1904
A.J. Bryan also designed the Monroe County Courthouse in Alabama.  Many experts state the design is very similar to the Troup County Courthouse.     Per the Encyclopedia of Alabama:  The courthouse’s most significant claim to fame is its inspiration for the fictional courthouse in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird…None of the film was shot in the courthouse, but the film set constructed for the courtroom scenes was patterned after the building’s unique oval courtroom.  Although the cost of the building nearly bankrupted the county, the structure was finished and in use in 1904. 

In 1906, Mr. Bryan also designed a Carnegie Library near Chico, California.   This website states the Biggs Public Library located in Butte County, California was designed by Mr. Bryan and opened in 1908.   The site further states, “When the Carnegie grant of $5,000 was offered in 1906, Biggs may have been the smallest city to undertake the responsibility of a library grant.  

It wasn’t an easy road.  The library site advises construction was delayed by the high cost of labor following the ‘San Francisco fire and railroad congestion’ after the 1906 earthquake.

Summerville, Georgia welcomed Mr. Bryan in 1909 as he designed the Chattooga County courthouse.  It’s one of my favorites.  

Chattooga County Courthouse, 1909
Back closer to him home in Chico Bryan designed the Chico City Hall in 1911, and a historical inventory of buildings I found online here and   here states he designed at least four homes which are all similar.  There is no question one of the homes was designed by Bryan as his signature was found on one of the boards.

I’m sure you have already noted the similarity in the homes.  They all use segmented intersecting gambrels, columned enclosed porches, and accent shingles that makes them immediately identifiable. Sadly, Mr. Bryan’s home was mentioned in the inventory, but not photographed.   Apparently the home had been altered to such an extent it was not included.

A.J. Bryan passed away in 1921.  Western Architect and Engineer mentions Bryan’s death saying…..”in the death of Mr. A.J. Bryan of Chico, Butte County, on October 10, the Architect and Engineer lost one of its oldest readers, Mr. Bryan having been a continuous subscriber to this magazine since its first number in 1905.   Mr. Bryan’s death was due to paralysis following an illness that extended over a period of nearly a year.   He was 73 years old.”

Bryan’s grave can be seen here.

If you want to learn more about Georgia’s various courthouses this site is invaluable.    A tour of the various courthouses that can be found along Georgia 27 can be found here.   Georgia’s Historic Preservation Division can be found here along with an online manual regarding courthouses.


  1. Fantastic site! Congrats on the move. I look forward to future columns.

  2. I find this very interesting... I used to live in a home in Chico next door to one of the blue houses. It was called the Big Red Barn and was owned by EE Bryan, Andrew's son... it leads me to think that the "Red Barn" was also designed by Bryan.


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