Following the condemnation and sale of the Town Hall Building (now Laughing Moon) due to damage arising from the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 (we’ll tell that story another time), the City Council proposed “adding to this [sale] amount and erecting a council chamber and truck house.” The first two proposed sites were “no go’s.” The space originally eyed was “the grass flat between the corner of the court house square and Mr. Burney’s residence.” This appears to have been actually in the street at the corner of E. Jefferson and Hancock streets. Unsurprisingly, this caused “considerable objection” with the opinion that it would “be an obstruction that will mar the beauty of our broad streets, as well as an injury to the property of Mr. Burney and the hotel." On November 29, 1886, the council accepted a design by Daniel Towns and resolved to build it on the site of the market house. This would have placed it on the square with the courthouse. The Market House can be seen in the background of this 1880s photo of Alpha Fire Co. It is the structure that looks like a steeple beyond the Braswell Monument. The construction of building was to be let out to the lowest bidder.
The lowest bidder turned out to be Daniel Towns who built it for about $4000.00. By March 1887 the walls were fast rising. The location, however, was not on the square but facing it from Jefferson Street. This side of the square had been vacant, except for the corner Foster & Ackerman Building, since a fire consumed the block in 1873. While the roof was being placed on the building in April, the city council purchased a fire bell to be placed in the cupola. In May, the Madisonian reported that the building, nearing completion, was substantially built and beautiful in appearance. They also threw in some second-guessing stating, “Yet we think our city fathers would have put the public money to far better use had they erected a building that could be used for a school house.” Nonetheless, the building quickly became more than a place for meetings, the mayor’s court, the police and fire station, and the “calaboose.” It was a community gathering spot.
August saw a dance held in the building, September saw Prof. Berger open a dance school there, and in December the ladies of Madison presented a dinner, supper, and “Kirmess” (small festival) to raise funds for the Madison Home Guards. When the county vacated the old courthouse, these types of festivities shifted to that building for a time, but the City Hall remained a center of community expression.
During WWI the bell in the cupola would toll one time each noon “as a signal for silent prayer and many hearts are lifted to God for the success of our Allies and our boys across the seas.” In the 1930s, City Hall was an informal gathering spot both for locals (“it is a right good place to learn local news and items of interest, as all classes congregate there at different hours of the day”) and visitors, many on the road looking for work (“city hall is a popular place at night with them and some find comfortable bunks or benches around the big stove almost every night”). Each spring the interior would get a good scrubbing in advance of elections including the big old stove which they graced with a polish that “chewers of tobacco will very soon abolish.”
Over the years City Hall saw various changes some which harkened changing times. Following the purchase of a motorized American-La France fire engine in 1916, the building received a new front and a cement floor. Another advance in transportation technology brought about an interesting cosmetic yet practical change. At the behest of the Kiwanis Club in 1925, Mayor Furlow had “Madison, Ga.” painted on the roof of City Hall. This was known as an airmark, an aerial navigational aid in the era before radar and GPS. Across the country, cities that could not yet afford to build an airport asked how they could participate in the dream of facilitating air travel. The short answer was to create airmarks that would help prevent accidents, drastically increase the efficiency of flying, and brighten the prospects of every city becoming host to an airfield. By early 1929, more than 2,000 communities scattered across the country had airmarks in place making Madison an early adopter.
Despite all this, sentiment began to gather that replacement of City Hall was in order. Mayor C. M. Furlow, as he approached retirement from office in 1929, suggested projects for his successors. Number three on his list was a new city hall. Mayor Furlow stated, “The treasurer of our city should have an office not adjoining the stables, public toilets, cages for prisoners, fire department, police headquarters, etc. In other words – an up-to-date office is needed so ladies may call and transact their business with the city with impunity.” However, this statement was made on the verge of the Great Depression and the likelihood of the community raising funds was unlikely, that is until 1938 when Public Works Administration funds came available for just such a project.
With the completion of the new City Hall in 1939, the building that is now the Welcome Center became vacant. The building would soon take on new uses which will be the focus of a future blog.