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Column: A comprehensive history of city hall in Gainesville
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

The City of Gainesville recently announced it would renovate the old City Hall, which faces Roosevelt Square downtown and, at the rear, Jesse Jewell Parkway.

The old City Hall is historic, having been built after the 1936 tornado destroyed the previous one at the corner of Main and Broad streets. Local leaders after the tornado, along with federal officials, decided on a plan that would create a government complex running from Washington Street on the north to Broad Street (now Jesse Jewell Parkway) on the south.

The post office at the time was on the corner of Washington and Green, and that building still stands as part of the Federal Building, which also had been built before the tornado. Next in line would be Hall County Courthouse, which would front on Spring Street, and then the City Hall. The complex would be called the “Civic Center,” not to be confused with the building on north Green Street that bears that name today after years of being referred to as the Civic Building. The 1936 courthouse has been expanded and is now an annex to the main courthouse.

Some city offices have remained in the old City Hall, but council meetings and other offices are in the Public Safety complex on Queen City Parkway and an administration building between the old courthouse and old City Hall. Except for the fire department, which was in a separate building across what was then south Green Street, practically all city business was conducted in the old City Hall. Council or commission meetings were held upstairs. The city clerk, police department and other offices were on the main floor.

There wasn’t any controversy about building that City Hall after the tornado leveled it and the old Hall County Courthouse, which was also a block off the square.

But the previous City Hall, built in 1899, did provoke a bit of bickering. Some vocal opposition developed as the city contemplated a new building. It had been renting places to hold council or aldermen meetings and house its fire equipment and horses. “The only protection to our homes and property is our fire engine and equipment,” wrote a supporter. “It is housed now in an old wooden building that is actually falling in from decay.”

The city’s barn and stable housing horses for the fire equipment was filling with water and mud, and “the old calaboose is inadequate,” another wrote. Supporters went on to say rent for all of the buildings would amount to $291 a year, whereas a new City Hall would cost only $5,000 with money on hand and sale of property to pay for it. That would save the city $16 a year, apparently a whopping amount at the time.

Opponents countered that taxes would have to be increased to pay for new buildings. However, voters approved the proposal, and that City Hall lasted until the tornado took it in 1936. One of the reasons there was so much fire damage in the tornado was that firefighters couldn’t get the equipment out of the doors of the 1899 City Hall, where the fire department was housed.

When the 1899 City Hall was built, the city had no auditorium or place for large meetings to be held. The auditorium upstairs was used for various activities, including those by students in the schools.

Longstreet’s shotgun

A recent “Antiques Roadshow” television program on Georgia Public Broadcasting featured Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s shotgun that was captured in the closing days of the Civil War.

The weapon was among about 300 Confederate wagons that Union forces captured at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek in Virginia, three days before Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox.

The gentleman who now owns the shotgun said his great-great-grandfather, Charles P. Mattox, a sharpshooter and major with Union 17th Maine led the charge to capture the wagons and more than 7,000 Confederate soldiers. He received the Union Medal of Honor for his part in the Sailor’s Creek battle.

The shotgun was said to be “high grade” and manufactured between 1840 and 1854 by Ellsworth Mortimer Co. It was displayed in a case. “Antiques Roadshow” estimated the shotgun’s worth at auction would be between $50,000 and $100,000. 


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.