Gwinnett County was established 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.
On Sunday, September 10, 1871, at around 11:00pm, 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 supposedly 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 next courthouse was built in 1872. It was so poorly constructed, that it was torn down in July 1884. In 1885, the present day Romanesque-style Courthouse was completed at a cost of $23,083. It was built on the foundation 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 upstairs courtroom 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 social and civic events since the early 1900s. Residents gathered on the courthouse grounds to discuss the current affairs of the day and watch the politicians, lawyers, and judges as they came and went.
The Gwinnett Historic Courthouse also houses the Gwinnett Historical Society. This group of over 400 members collects, preserves, and perpetuates the historic heritage of Gwinnett County, Georgia. The society’s center and library is open Monday through Friday on the second floor of the Historic Courthouse. The society hosts the county’s only genealogy library of over 1,600 publications, an archive collection of assorted county and family records, a map collection, a book store for county-specific publications, a microfilm research room, a growing collection of vintage historic family and Gwinnett locations photographs, and an office with assorted surname, church, cemetery, school, place, and subject files.