Old courthouse building tells much of DeKalb’s story

In its almost 200-year existence, DeKalb County has had several courthouses, including the current one on North McDonough Street. But many who hear mention of the DeKalb County courthouse immediately think of the imposing structure on the Decatur square with its grand columns and massive exterior clocks.

“You’d be surprised how often people come here thinking this is the working DeKalb County Courthouse,” said Mary K. Jarboe, a volunteer with the DeKalb County History Center, the current occupants of the building. The mistake is understandable since the words DeKalb County Courthouse remain atop the more that 100-year-old building.

Courtrooms and many other county offices moved to the North McDonough location in 1967, still the building now referred to as the Old Courthouse on the Square, built in 1918, is an area landmark that draws attention for its architectural features and the history it embodies.

Many of what had once been courtrooms and county offices are now storage areas or empty rooms; however, both the exterior and the rooms still in use maintain the grandeur of an earlier era. Those are focal points of the DeKalb County History Center’s periodic tours of the old courthouse. One such tour was conducted by Jarboe on Jan. 14.

The building, in addition to housing DeKalb History Center offices, has a museum with exhibits that are changed periodically and event space that is available to be rented.

“Rentals for weddings and other events are major revenue sources for us,” Jarboe explained. “It would be tough to keep the building open without the money from rentals.”

After DeKalb County was carved out of parts of Henry, Fayette and Gwinnett counties in 1822 to become the state’s 56th county and Decatur was selected as the county seat, its first courthouse, which Jarboe described as “a crude wooden structure,” was erected. It was replaced six years later by a sturdier structure on the square. Thirteen years later, it, too was gone, the result of a mysterious middle-of-the-night fire that destroyed most county records, according to Jarboe.

“Courthouses years ago, often were more than just places for trials and business with the county government, they were community centers where people came to socialize and play cards and other games. The cause of the 1842 fire is not known, but it’s likely a card player carelessly left a cigar in the wrong place and that set off the blaze.”

A two-story red brick Greek Revival-style courthouse was completed in 1847. “This one survived the Civil War, including the Battle of Decatur in 1864,” Jarboe said, “but by the late 1890 it was no longer large enough and the county tore it down to build a larger one also on the square.”

Mary K. Jarboe

She added that in the 1880s there was a movement to change the county seat from Decatur to Stone Mountain, “but it never got the necessary level of support. A majority voted for the move, but a two-thirds majority was required.”

In 1898, a Neoclassical-style courthouse with many features of the building that was the subject of the tour became the center of county business. “This was considered a modern building and had such features as toilets and what they called ‘a room for ladies.’ I’m not sure how it was used, but it was designated for ladies,” Jarboe said.

In the fall or 1916, fire again broke out in DeKalb’s courthouse. “While it gutted the interior of the building, much of the external structure was saved thanks to walls built of Lithonia granite,” Jarbore said. “By now, county officials had learned their lesson and most county records were in fireproof safes. Only a few papers that had been taken out and were in use didn’t survive the fire.”

Because the building has the look and feel of a classic Southern courthouse building, the old Courthouse on the Square—which in 1971 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places—has been featured in a number of movies and television shows, Jarboe said.

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