Nashville Preserves Its Historic Courthouse

Davidson County Courthouse and Square

Davidson County Courthouse and Public Square
Nashville’s restored PWA Courthouse is a New Deal gem.
Photo Credit: Tara Mitchell Mielnik, PhD

“We should preserve our old buildings, not demolish them, and I hope, in some way, the courthouse will be saved from the wrecking crew.” So wrote Mrs. B.T. Johnson to a Nashville, Tennessee newspaper in July 1935. Mrs. Johnson was objecting to the demolition of Nashville’s existing City Hall, market house, and antebellum county courthouse to make way for the Public Works Administration’s construction of the Davidson County Public Building and Court House.

Davidson County Courthouse

Davidson County Courthouse
Nashville’s PWA Courthouse, 1937
Photo Credit: Tara Mitchell Mielnik, PhD

Nashville architect Emmons H. Woolwine, working with Frederic Hirons of New York, presented plans that were the unanimous choice of jurors in an architectural competition featured in Pencil Points magazine. The judges cited their design as “the most ingeniously designed public building seen in a long time and one that will undoubtedly serve as a model for other buildings of its type for years to come.”
The new building, then called Art Deco and now styled “PWA Modern” combined the uses of the City Hall and County Courthouse buildings some twenty-five years before the City of Nashville and Davidson County would merge to form a metropolitan government. Completed in 1937, the 8-story building held city and county offices, three floors of courtrooms, and the county jail. It was the first building in Nashville to have central air conditioning.

The architectural style appears at first glance to be a stripped-down version of a classical form, with twelve Doric columns across the main façade. Symbolism abounds on both the exterior and interior of the building.  The cornice includes carved stone figures: a lioness, a snake, and a bison, symbolizing protection, wisdom, and strength. Three pairs of massive bronze doors hold symbolic figures representing courage, loyalty, law, justice, security, and wisdom.

Detail, Davidson County Courthouse

Detail, Davidson County Courthouse
The exterior door of the Davidson County Courthouse.
Photo Credit: Tara Mitchell Mielnik, PhD

Above each doorway is a carved glass representation of the great lawgivers, King John, Moses, and Justinian, created by glass artist David Harriton, whose resume includes the windows in the ceiling of the House and Senate Chambers of the U.S. Capitol. Two large cast bronze fountains flank the building’s entrance. In the lobby, large murals, created by Dean Cornwell for the WPA Public Art program, promote the ideals of Industry, Agriculture, Commerce, and Statesmanship.

In 2007, sixty-five years after Mrs. Johnson decried the destruction of one building for another, Nashvillians rededicated their historic PWA Courthouse after a careful rehabilitation.

Tara Mitchell Mielnik, the federal programs coordinator for the Metropolitan Nashville Historical Commission, is Research Associate for Tennessee for the Living New Deal. She is the author of New Deal, New Landscape: The Civilian Conservation Corps and South Carolina’s State Parks.

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