History of the Courthouse
Since the original territory of Clarke County included what is now Oconee County, the county seat and the courthouse were first located in Watkinsville. The county seat was moved to Athens in 1871, but there was no concern to erect a new courthouse until 1875. During those four years, county meetings were held in the old Town Hall in Athens.
In 1875, a contract was awarded to construct a courthouse on the site now bounded by Prince Avenue, Hill Street, and Pope Street. The new seat of county government included three buildings: the courthouse, a jail, and a jailer's house. When the present courthouse was occupied in 1914, the structure was remodeled and became Athens High School. Today, only the old jail remains on the site.
Athens' downtown continued to develop in the early 1900s, including a new city hall and federal building. Thus, in 1913, county officials were influenced to build a new courthouse in the same area. A site was selected at the corner of Washington and Jackson streets where a blacksmith shop originally stood. Including the land, fees, and construction, the completed project totaled $219,000.
Many local businesses were listed as subcontractors. Among them were L.M. Leathers for sheet metal and roofing; the Dorsey Company for furnishings; Michael Brothers for linoleum and window shades; and Berstein Brothers for vault doors and opera chairs for the courtrooms. County offices were transferred from the Prince Avenue location in horse-drawn wagons and, according to county records, the courthouse was occupied on May 6, 1914.
The general appearance of the 1914 courthouse remains virtually unchanged today. When the courthouse opened, the ordinary (now probate judge), clerk of superior court, and offices of the tax assessor and tax collector occupied the first floor. The second floor housed the courtrooms of Judge Charles H. Brand and Judge Henry West. County offices were on the third floor and Sheriff Walter Jackson lived on the fourth floor where the jail was located, along with the prisoners. Additionally, the roof served as an exercise area for occupants of the jail.
New Construction & Renovation
As Clarke County grew in population, services, and personnel to administer those services, it became evident that additional office space and improved facilities were desperately needed to keep up with modern demands. Parking in the downtown areas also came at a premium for employees as well as for merchants and shoppers. In 1984, the Board of Commissioners recognized these needs and voted to construct a new administration building and a multi-level parking facility adjacent to the existing courthouse. In addition, the courthouse would be renovated to provide more functional working areas while restoring and preserving much of the 1914 character of the old building. A veterans' memorial plaza was constructed between the courthouse and parking deck to commemorate Athenians who had fought in wars throughout the years.
The cost of the entire project totaled $11.2 million. Principle funding for the project was raised primarily from a voter-approved countywide 1% special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) over a one-year period. The new annex was occupied in early 1989, and renovation of the courthouse was completed by late winter of 1990. On Sunday, May 6, 1990, 76 years to the day when the 1914 courthouse was opened to the public, the new administrative annex and renovated courthouse were dedicated to the continued service to the citizens of Clarke County. Currently, the courthouse houses the sheriff's office, most of the courts and judicial branch, and a variety of Athens-Clarke County executive branch offices.
In 1998, the courthouse was selected as the second in the ongoing series of holiday ornaments to commemorate Athens-Clarke County landmarks.