You might have noticed a decorative new addition in Downtown Huntsville at the Madison County Courthouse. A bell now sits on the southside square just across from Harrison Brothers Hardware and Commerce Kitchen. Did you know there have been four Madison County Courthouses, and the bell and other early architectural features have been incorporated into most of the designs?
The 1st Courthouse Was Built in 1818
John Hunt settled the land near "Big Spring" in 1805 and by 1808 Madison County was created. After a name change from Twickenham to Huntsville in 1811, it was the first incorporated city in Alabama. A two-story brick courthouse was completed in 1818. It was built in the same location as today and was surrounded by a marketplace. In 1819, when Alabama progressed from territorial status to statehood as the 22nd state of the Union, Huntsville was chosen as the temporary capital. Here, Alabama's first constitution was drafted at Alabama Constitution Hall Park, its first governor inaugurated and its first legislature convened.
The 2nd Courthouse Built in 1836
George Steele was an architect that brought the Greek revival style architecture to Huntsville. He designed the second courthouse and the First Alabama Bank Building. In April 1849, 13 years after the first Madison County Courthouse was built, an order was placed for $300 for a clock and bell to be placed on the courthouse. By January of 1850, Madison County facilitated the purchase and installation of the new clock and bell for just $800.
The 3rd Courthouse Built in 1914
Huntsville continued to grow and needed a larger courthouse. The architect reused the Greek style columns, the clock tower, the bell, and the weather vane. After the Civil War, much of the South had been burned, but because Union soldiers stayed in the area, Huntsville survived. Cotton and textile mills were a cornerstone of the city's economy. After the Great Depression in the 1930s, farming became king. Huntsville became known as the "Watercress Capital of the World."
During WWII, the US Army purchased 35,000 acres to build chemical munition facilities. This became Redstone Arsenal in 1941. From there, you may know about Dr. Wernher von Braun and his German team coming to the area in 1950 to work on missiles and eventually, the Redstone Rocket. By 1960, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center was created and Huntsville became known as the "Rocket City." The space race was on and the Apollo team worked throughout the decade to be the first to reach the moon. With a new moniker for the area, citizens and leaders decided they wanted a modern building for their courthouse. So down it came.
The Current Courthouse Built in 1967
This is "the courthouse that space built." Modern for the time in 1967, it was the toast of the town. It was the site of "Dancing in the Streets" in 1969 when the rocket Huntsville built, a Saturn V, put man on the moon. It is now a building that may stick out compared to some of the surrounding areas, but we know the former courthouse did have some structural problems with the foundation and some of the columns were crooked.
Where are they now?
When the courthouse was rebuilt in 1914, the bell was placed back in the tower and rang downtown every day until that building was torn down to build the current courthouse in 1964. In all, this bell rang in Huntsville for 115 years! The Madison County Commission decided to bring the historic bell back to the public this year. You can see this unique piece of Huntsville history on the Square across from Harrison Brothers!
A few of the fluted limestone columns from the second courthouse can now be seen at the entrance to the Huntsville Botanical Garden.
The Cupula and Weather Vane
The First National Bank that George Steele also designed is now the home of the weather vane and cupula.
The Clock Tower
The clock tower is still a mystery. If anyone has any information, let the Historic Huntsville Foundation know.