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Ask Rufus: The City Halls of Columbus

 

Shown is the drawing for a proposed Columbus city hall and fire station in 1902. The Columbus City Hall that has just been restored and the former fire station behind it were designed by Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt, constructed by the Columbus Marble Works and completed in 1903.

Shown is the drawing for a proposed Columbus city hall and fire station in 1902. The Columbus City Hall that has just been restored and the former fire station behind it were designed by Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt, constructed by the Columbus Marble Works and completed in 1903. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

W.H. O'Neal designed Columbus' second city hall in 1856. It was constructed to replace the first city hall, which had been destroyed by the disastrous downtown fire of 1854.

W.H. O'Neal designed Columbus' second city hall in 1856. It was constructed to replace the first city hall, which had been destroyed by the disastrous downtown fire of 1854.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

The recent completion of the restoration of Columbus City Hall has brought to mind the fascinating stories of earlier buildings that served as city hall.  

 

For the first years of its existence, Columbus did not have an official town hall and the city board meetings were held at various locations, including both public and commercial buildings. When Columbus was officially recognized as the Town of Columbus in 1819, it was a small settlement of mostly log with a few wood frame buildings and there was little need for a town hall. An act of the Alabama Legislature in December 1819 reflected this when it designated that "some suitable house in the Town of Columbus," be a Marion County election precinct. When in 1820 a U.S. Post Office was established in Columbus, the town's population was only 107 persons being 83 free white, one free black and 23 slaves. 

 

The town grew steadily during the 1820s and its population mushroomed in the 1830s with the opening and sale of Indian lands. After 1830, the city board met at the county courthouse and at private business buildings such as the Commercial Bank. Though slow to respond, in the mid 1840s the city finally realized a "town hall" was needed.  

 

In February 1846, the city board established a committee to "receive written proposals for building a two-story brick building of 50-by-25 (feet) for the Hook and Ladder (fire) Company and Town Hall." Then on March 7, the city board minutes reflect "a suitable site be selected for building a Town Hall."  

 

In May of that year further action on the Town Hall was "suspended" because of the outbreak of the War with Mexico. 

 

Discussions on the need for a Town Hall resumed on October 3, 1846, with the appointment of C.H. Abert and James Sykes to investigate the matter. (I found this interesting as Sykes was my great-great-great-grandfather and Abert built my house, the Ole Homestead.) On Oct. 31, architect James Lull contracted with the city to provide the "carpenter's work" for $3,120, and James Shaw contracted to provide the brick work for $3,250.  

 

Shaw's brick-yard was located behind the old city "graveyard." The old cemetery was about the present day location of Atmos' offices and the Columbus Police Department on Main Street. (My father had recalled squirrel hunting in that area in the early 1930s and seeing some tombstones still there.) 

 

In January 1847, property on Main Street was purchased for the Town Hall, which was now referred to as the "City Hall." The site was the present location of First United Methodist Church. The building's cornerstone was laid on March 23, 1847, and construction commenced. In April 1848, a town clock was approved to be added to the new city hall.  

 

The new city hall was not to last as in September 1854 at least two city blocks in downtown Columbus were consumed in a massive fire. The scene was recorded by Nathan Fox in his diary. He described how 12 good building and some other smaller ones were reduced to ruins. He wrote: "There are the remains of the Telegraph office, and here are the fragments of dishes, knives, forks, of friend Howard where I last night enjoyed my good supper. But yonder stands the stately ruins of the city hall and Masonic and Odd Fellow's hall, sublime even in ruins." 

 

At the city's request, architect and contractor William O'Neal prepared a draft plan for a new city hall in June of 1856. The new structure was built on the site of the present city hall. It was to continue in use until it was torn down in 1902 to make way for the construction of the present building. Photos of this building are often called the original city hall but it is actually the second one. 

 

The present city hall was designed by architect R.H. Hunt of Chattanooga and constructed by John Stinson and the building department of the Columbus Marble Works. Included in the project was the construction of a new two story brick building for the fire department to be directly behind city hall. Construction began in 1902 and was completed in 1903. Although the interior furnishings had not arrived, city officials moved in anyway in August 1903. 

 

Thanks to Carolyn Kaye for working with me on this column. 

 

Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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