Professor Delos Hughes has turned a trove of photographs and historical documentation into a neat, compact, readable book. It is about an important topic---Alabama's historic courthouses---and it offers a multi-faceted way of learning about each county's "tastes," how they stamped aesthetic preferences onto the public space, and, [End Page 167] sometimes, the fate of these buildings. Hughes organized Historic Alabama Courthouses: A Century of Their Images and Stories alphabetically, county by county, and included every structure at least one hundred years old that he could document. Those built later, such as the architecturally rich 1929 Jefferson County Courthouse, did not make the cut. Maybe a later edition will incorporate some of the more recently constructed courthouses.
Roman architect Vitruvius's "strong opinions about the qualities of fine architecture" provide Hughes with a reference point for analyzing the tastes of Alabama's courthouse designers. He uses the ancient scholar's "standards for judging architecture," namely commodity, firmness and delight, and applies them to this state (3). Readers will get a quick, succinct romp through Alabama's public architectural mores. They will not, Hughes makes clear, get an exhaustive, academic tome requiring advanced degrees to finish.
Readers should pay attention to Hughes's two "observations of special interest." One is the extent to which Alabama courthouses did not reflect necessarily a county's unique personality as, he asserts, readers might presume. Rather, they often mimicked or in some cases "literally copied" other courthouses (6). Second, he asks the reader to notice the influence of South Carolina's "courthouse tradition," especially in Alabama's Black Belt, where many Palmetto State residents moved. However, although the older state revered the separation of powers evident in the "literal independence of administrative and judicial spaces," the author contends that "no such history nor any such actual separation of powers existed to be expressed at the county level in Alabama" (7). Such a conclusion seems premature without more proof.
Hughes, emeritus professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, is a graduate of Lee County High School in Auburn and, since retirement, has spent time researching and writing about architectural history. This combination of expertise and interests lures both the academic and the lay scholar who may be interested in economic, social, or political history along [End Page 168] with those seduced more by builders, architects, and practitioners. As it happens, these disciplines always are interfaced with individual personalities and money, but also, uniquely to public buildings, with taxpayers' demands. The author captures these realities with facile writing, archival mastery, and precision.
In his "A Last Word" the author acknowledges that he hopes this volume challenges earlier American historians' declarations that Alabama was a backwater, lacking "taste and resources," especially in the postbellum period (153). He achieves this counter narrative and much more. Where possible he reveals each courthouse's style, architect, builder, and cost of construction. He also points out those that are singularly notable such as Washington County's bare-bones 1854 courthouse still (barely) standing in St. Stephens; Pickens County's second courthouse, reportedly etched by lightning with the first courthouse arsonist's face on his way to the executioner; or Cherokee County's courthouse, in Centre, built after the state legislature stipulated its location precisely at the county's center point.
Hughes also treats us to a compendium of Alabama courthouse designs which may surprise many. Classically-inspired style, he points out, was "de rigueur in antebellum Alabama" (Madison County and Montgomery County) and "survived with some vigor in post-Civil War years" (Greene County). But, he explains, "an entrepreneurial class in the Reconstruction era embraced the emergent New South philosophy and looked for more appropriate, nay, modern architectural styles," as exemplified in the courthouses of Bibb, Butler and Chambers Counties (6). These boosters, he notes, often were more interested in dollars than design, equating modern style with "evidence" of safe investment.
As the century turned, boosters, elected officials, and designers continued...