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New’ City Hall didn’t last as long as hoped

POSTED: September 4, 2011 1:00 a.m.

The marble building next to Gainesville's Georgia Mountains Center near one end of the new pedestrian bridge across Jesse Jewell Parkway continues to bear the name "City Hall," although numerous city offices are in the Joint Administration Building next door.

City Hall rose after the 1936 tornado. The Federal Building in the block bounded by Spring, South Green and Washington streets was already there when the tornado struck and survived major damage. Those planning the rebuilding of the city thought it would be a good idea to line up a City Hall and Hall County Courthouse with the Federal Building to make up a Civic Center, not to be confused with the building of the same name at the north end of Green Street.

The new City Hall then housed most city offices, including the police department in the west wing. The fire department was across what was South Green Street at the time.

The 1936-era City Hall and county courthouse were victims of the storm. County officials had been planning to replace the courthouse before the tornado gutted it.

Gainesville voters had decided in 1899 to build a new City Hall. As usual with such projects, opponents didn't want to spend tax money to build it.

John A. Pierce had drawn plans for a new City Hall earlier, but after the favorable vote, he was asked to submit new ones. As the Gainesville Eagle reported, the City Council approved his plans "for a most commodious and elegant structure."

The building that the 1936 tornado destroyed was 2½ stories high. Its slate and tin roof was capped with a dome containing a fire alarm. It was built at the corner of Main and what was then Broad streets. Offices and a courtroom were on the first floor facing Main Street. The mayor's office was on one side, and police department the other. Prisoners were housed in a section adjacent to the police.

The fire department with a large hall fronting on Broad was behind the courtroom. A second floor contained other city offices and a large hall that could accommodate more than 760 people.

"Fifty years from now, it will stand as a monument to the progressive spirit which called it into existence," the Eagle wrote. Nobody knew at the time it would be among the ruins of downtown Gainesville just 36 years later.

Academy Street, including West Academy, which runs from Jesse Jewell Parkway to Boulevard and Brenau Academy, once was named Seminary Street. That's because it ran to Georgia Baptist Female Seminary, now the Brenau University campus. Actually West Academy from Jesse Jewell to Oak Street, once was a part of Grove Street.

Before it was renamed Seminary Street, East Oak ran from present-day Oak Street to the Seminary campus.

While it might seem Hall Countians "back in the day" were universally in favor of capital punishment, it wasn't necessarily the case. Hangings of criminals were common throughout the country in the 1800s. Yet, Hall County went from 1872 to 1899 without a court-ordered hanging. That year, 1899, a man was hanged in the Hall County Courthouse after being convicted of murder. A judge delayed the execution a couple of times before it finally took place.

Critics complained that Hall County juries were reluctant to impose the death penalty. The Eagle defended the record: "Hall has had its share of murders, and her citizens are anxious to see justice meted out to every murderer; but, on the other hand, they have been particular to give everyone one the benefit of every reasonable doubt, preferring to let guilty men serve a life term in the penitentiary rather than to mete out capital punishment to them when it appears that it is possible for the prisoner at the bar not to be guilty of murder of the first degree, or as in some cases, a possibility of his innocence."

If that seemed wimpy on the part of the newspaper, it quickly let its position be known by proclaiming in a more celebratory manner in the pending murder matter, the convicted " ... will hang by the neck until dead, dead, dead!" And so he was.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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