Gwinnett Historic Courthouse
185 Crogan Street, Lawrenceville
Gwinnett County was created on December 15, 1818 from Cherokee and Creek Indian lands ceded to the state of Georgia. Elisha Winn, a prominent local citizen, allowed his house to be used for all of the county’s elections and court proceedings. In December of 1819, as the county grew, the Inferior Court of Gwinnett County was given authority to build a temporary courthouse until the center of the county was determined and a more permanent structure could be built. A log cabin courthouse was built on a parcel of land near the intersection of present day Old Norcross Road and West Pike Street for $56. The present site was chosen due to the location of several nearby springs that could provide water for the town. Surveyors laid out the town square, the streets adjoining the square, and surrounding city streets. The lots on the four streets surrounding the courthouse site were then sold to the public who set about creating the town. In 1824, a new brick courthouse was built on the courthouse square at a cost of $4,000.
The courthouse was lost to fire in 1871. At around 11:00pm pm on Sunday, September 10, Sheriff M.V. Brand heard a noise coming from the square and went to investigate. There he found the courthouse engulfed in flames. Citizens came to battle the flames but their efforts were in vain and the courthouse burned to the ground. Sheriff Brand ordered that a posse be formed at daybreak in order to track down those responsible for the fire. Only one man showed up the next morning to join. Eventually, three men were arrested. An investigation into the fire revealed that a member of an alleged criminal gang was running a bootlegging operation in Gwinnett County. There was an incriminating letter in the courthouse that was going to be used against him in his upcoming trial. Therefore, members of the group decided to burn the courthouse in an effort to destroy the letter and protect him. Unfortunately for him, the letter survived the fire. Sadly, many early and important records of the Inferior Court did not. Some records were saved thanks to a local citizen named R.M. Cole, who entered the burning building and grabbed what he could. The county gave him a reward of $50 for his bravery.
The present courthouse was built in 1872 and was so poorly constructed that it was torn down in July of 1884. In 1885, the present day Romanesque-style courthouse was completed at a cost of $23,083. It was built on the foundations of the original courthouse that burned and you can still see charring and smoke damage on some of the bricks in portions of the basement. In 1908, a four-story belfry was added that removed the original minaret tower. The new belfry was designed to house a four-sided clock and bell. The time is delivered by a Seth Thomas eight-day clock that drives the four-sided clock face in the top floor of the belfry. The hourly time is announced via a massive McShane Bell Foundry bell. When first struck, the bell was said to be heard for 20 miles in the surrounding countryside. This renovation also added a turret-style balcony on the Crogan Street side that allowed bailiffs to announce the names of people called for jury duty and the verdicts of court cases being tried inside.
The newest part of the courthouse, which faces Pike Street, was built in 1935 by prison laborers at a cost of $10,000. It was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. The original offices on the ground floor were subdivided and made into additional offices that housed the Sheriff’s Office, the Tax Commissioner’s Office, and other county officials. In the 1960s, the courtroom upstairs was divided to provide two separate courts, the Judge’s chambers, and a jail that held prisoners awaiting trial.
The courthouse grounds have been a popular spot for socializing and civic events since the early 1900’s. Citizens gathered on the courthouse grounds to discuss the current affairs of the day and watch politicians, lawyers, and judges as they came and went. As the population of Gwinnett County grew, the courthouse could no longer handle all of the business that it needed to. Offices and buildings located on the square and in other areas served as “annex” buildings by the county for official business. In 1988, the county decided to consolidate the majority of its operations under one roof and moved from the courthouse downtown into the newly built Gwinnett Justice and Administration Building on Langley Drive.
After the move into the new building, the fate of the old courthouse was in doubt. Some people wanted to sell it, some wanted to tear it down, and others wished to restore it. Recognizing the historical value of the courthouse, the citizens of Gwinnett County voted to approve the 1987 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) to save and restore the building. Architects and construction workers poured over old photographs and blueprints and talked with citizens and former employees in an effort to restore the building to its former glory. The entire building was gutted from the basement to the top floor of the belfry. After a lengthy three year renovation, the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse was reopened to the public on July 3, 1992. The courthouse now serves as a venue for weddings, meetings, and special events. It plays host to the annual Lighting of the Tree in November and Brown Bag Concerts for children in the summer. The courthouse is also home to the George L. Williams Collection of fine art and antiques, the Gwinnett Historical Society, and the Gwinnett Veterans Memorial Museum.
Courthouse courtyard cemetery: On February 17, 1837 the remains of eight soldiers from Gwinnett County were laid to rest in a single grave on the courthouse square. These soldiers died fighting Creek Indians at the Battle of Shepherd’s Plantation in Stewart County on June 9th 1836. Two more soldiers who were killed during the Mexican War on March 27, 1838 in Goliad, Texas were also interred here. In 1840, a monument made from Longswamp Cherokee Marble was dedicated with their names inscribed on it to memorialize their sacrifice.
For more information visit www.gwinnettparks.com or call 770.822.5450.