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New buildings drew criticism from near, far

POSTED: August 31, 2008 5:01 a.m.

When Hall County built its new courthouse, there was considerable criticism when the original estimate of $8.5 million grew to $16.5 million because of increased building costs, and finally to $24.9 million because another floor was added.

Back in the mid-1930s, criticism of local building projects reverberated all the way to New York and back.

As the area was coming out of the Depression, the federal government was helping local governments with an array of projects. The biggie for Gainesville was the Federal Building, which stands downtown today about like it was when it was built in 1935. Besides being a federal courthouse, it also was the main post office.

In addition, the county built a new jail, the one that stood on South Bradford Street just south of Jesse Jewell Parkway until a few years ago, and an alms house, a home for the poor and elderly, atop a hill off Atlanta Highway.

Some of the criticism came from the local newspapers. The Gainesville News called the Federal Building a monstrosity: " ... if an uglier building, architecturally speaking, was ever built it must have come from a futuristic painter's delirium. ... and the almshouse, atop a gently sloping hill, looks more like the hunting estate of an English peer than it does a comfortable home for the unfortunate ... "

But it had praise for the new jail: "The county jail is probably the most magnificent structure in Gainesville, unless it be the First Baptist Church, Chicopee Manufacturing Corp. or Riverside Military Academy ..." First Baptist at the time was at the corner of Green and Washington where Regions Bank downtown offices are today.

Money had to do with the criticism, too, as the jail cost $135,000, the almshouse $40,723 and the Federal Building more than $300,000. President Franklin Roosevelt's Public Works Administration picked up much of the tab.

The New York Sun newspaper got into the act, slamming a town of 8,624 at the time for having an air-conditioned marble jail with Simmons mattresses on beds in the cells. The headline read, "Marble Jail Is Pride of Gainesville."

"The prisoners ought to be comfortable," The Sun writer wrote. "There aren't enough prisoners to fill up the new jail yet, but nobody is going to lose sleep over that." The jail also drew criticism for having facilities for volleyball and handball.

Local folks probably agreed with the New York paper's assessment of the almshouse, calling it "the Hall County Country Club." It did look country clubbish with a long driveway leading from Atlanta Highway through brick columns and a nice brick building with a somewhat fancy entrance.

Magnificent as the almshouse was, even its residents didn't like it, and the county built them a wooden frame building behind it. The original "poor house," as most people referred to it in that day, converted to a hospital operated by Dr. Lee Rogers. Today it houses Top of Gainesville, an adult nightclub.

While the Gainesville newspaper agreed with part of The Sun article, the New York newspaper itself didn't escape a few sharply worded barbs: "Smart writing never gets anybody anywhere except into the regions of low estimates by readers. There is a wide difference between being smart and just plain smart-alecky ... (The writer) is laughing up his sleeve at Gainesville's extravagance. He is writing obviously, premeditatedly, maliciously, to discredit the Roosevelt administration.

"And, of course, Gainesville is in the South, and that presents always an opportunity for some New Yorker, or Southerner gone New Yorker, to display his sophomoric brilliance and prove that he has elevated himself by his bootstraps and risen above his early environment."

The Federal Building, even if some thought it a monstrosity, became the anchor of the new government complex after the 1936 tornado. It lined up between Bradford and South Green streets with the new county courthouse and city hall built after the storm wiped out the old facilities. Instead of criticism, a more united community seemed proud of its new "civic center," as the three government buildings all in a row were called when completed.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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