Cooper: Meadows -- From tragic fire to new courthouse

Special .In March, 1958, Arthur Meadows, second from right, received the keys to the new courthouse from contractor C.H. McKown Sr. Also shown are commissioners Hugh Riley of Beulah and Otto Roper of Bill Arp.

When Arthur Meadows was re-elected in 1952 to serve as Douglas County's Commission chair, it was his second term to serve in that position, but it was the first time the commission chair was elected by the people. Up to that point, the commission chair had been selected by the entire board of commissioners, a body of nine people. The 1952 election was the first under a new law that called for commission chairs to be voted on by the people and trimmed the nine-member board down to three. Hugh Riley and Henry Rawlins served alongside Meadows. During this three-year term a renovation of the jail occurred.

In 1956, Meadows was again elected along with Otto Roper and Hugh Riley. Meadows' salary had jumped to $3,600 a year with an expense account of $50 per month. No car was provided in those days.

The major event during this term dealt with unexpected construction. A new Douglas County courthouse was built on the same block along Broad Street in downtown Douglasville where some sort of courthouse structure had stood since the county's earliest days. The courthouse construction was not expected, not in the budget, and the necessity of a new building shocked every single citizen of Douglas County. Very early in the morning around 5 a.m. on January 11, 1956, the Victorian style brick courthouse which had stood for one hundred and forty years burned to the ground.

Very little survived the fire. Contrary to popular stories I often hear, the vaults inside the Clerk of Court and the Commissioner's office remained intact, so many of the main records of the county were not harmed, but the burden of replacing the courthouse was suddenly thrust onto the shoulders of the newly elected three-man board of commissioners.

The county received a financial settlement from the insurance carried on the lost building totaling $110,000 and another $325,000 was raised through bonds. Southern Engineering Company, an architectural firm, was hired to design the new building which would leave the Victorian-style behind opting for the Mid-Century Modern/International architectural style. The job of building the courthouse went to a local company -- McKown Construction Company -- owned by C.H. and J.H. McKown.

It has been explained to me and is a fact I often share when giving tours at the museum the commissioners accepted the design as it was a forward-thinking style leaving the past behind -- a rebirth of sorts of the county vision -- an acceptance of the past, but an anticipation of the great future which lie ahead for the county. There aren't many public buildings in the Atlanta area built in the Mid-Century Modern/International style, and often the building itself is the reason why many architectural students travel to Douglasville. Also, dozens of film crews have used the building for exterior and interior scenes including most recently, the movie "The Founder" starring Michael Keaton.

Today, the majority of the first floor of the old courthouse is taken up with the Douglas County Museum of History and Art. You can view the actual set of plans used to build the courthouse as well as dozens of sign-in sheets with the signatures of many of the Douglas County citizens who attended the two-day open house to celebrate the completion of the building. It's always a joy to see folks come in and pick out the signatures of relatives, folks they remember, or even themselves!

Not only were the commissioners saddled with the job of overseeing the construction following the fire, but county business had to continue during the building process. The commissioners had to find temporary office space for all the various departments. The hunt resulted in county offices taking up every available office space in the county. Rental fees for all the needed space caused the county budget to swell and resulted in the highest budget during all the years Meadows was in office totaling $775,000.

The Superior Court moved to an old American Legion building that was located near the city water department building, and the commissioner's office was re-located to the health center building on Spring Street.

Citizens must have been pleased with how Meadow's and his team worked through the crisis since they were re-elected to yet another term at the end of 1956. The highlight during Meadows third term was when the new courthouse was officially opened in March 1958. When interviewed several years later, Meadows said he knew he was criticized for not building a larger courthouse. He liked to remind people the population of the county at that time was only 13,000. If the critics could have told him the population would increase at the rate it did through the years, and if they had helped him raise the funds, he would have built it. Meadows liked to say no one offered more tax dollars.

By the election of 1960, folks in Douglas County were wanting a change, and the position of Commission Chair went to Hershel Bomar. Meadows took the loss in stride, and as he left office on December 31, 1959. He had held office longer than any chairman up to that time.

One longtime acquaintance said, "Some of the county's true treasures are to be found in such people as Arthur Meadows. It would be wonderful if we could always have such elected officials in office."

I'd have to agree. Arthur Meadows integrity was never questioned.

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