Surviving the Times
Drew County Courthouse remains center of public life after history of adversity.
Story By Mark Christ
Photos By Holly Hope
With a splendid courthouse erected during the depths of the Great Depression, Drew County’s seat of government stands today as a testament to the determination of the county’s residents to triumph over adversity, and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has worked with the county since 2000 to ensure it will remain a center of public life in Monticello.
Settlers came to Drew County around 1837, and court proceedings were held in a village called Rough and Ready near modern-day Monticello; legends of feuds, fights and murder indicated it was aptly named. The county was formed from parts of Bradley and Arkansas counties in 1846 and was named for Thomas Stevenson Drew, who would be elected governor of Arkansas from 1844 to 1849. Drew County’s current boundaries were not solidified until 1873, when its boundary with Chicot County was finally settled.
When Drew County was formed, its people decided they needed a perhaps more respectable location for the county seat, and in 1849 Fountain C. and Polly Austin donated 83 acres for the town site, which was likely named for Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. A wood-frame courthouse was erected in 1851 and apparently was soon outgrown, as a new and presumably larger frame courthouse was built in 1856-57. The original building is believed to have been moved to the west side of the courthouse square to be used as a law office by S.F. Arnett. In 1887 the building was leased by F.A. Lane, an evidently cantankerous tenant who refused the request by a Monticello bank to vacate the building so that it could use the lot. The bank simply confiscated the structure and moved it, with all of Lane’s belongings, across the square to Gaines Street.
By 1869 the Drew County Quorum Court decided that a new and more elaborate building was needed. A committee was appointed to oversee the project, and it hired the Jones and Baldwin architectural firm in Memphis to design the new building. They chose the elaborate Second Empire style as the design for the new building – a relatively scarce style in the state, the best-known example of which is Old Main at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The cornerstone was laid amid elaborate ceremony on October 20, 1870, and L.W. Lisenby of Little Rock was hired to build the structure. Construction was finished in May 1872, when the clock was installed on the soaring, Mansard-roofed tower that loomed 120 feet above downtown Monticello. The final project cost was $35,689. Though still structurally sound, the building was unfortunately demolished in 1933.
In 1931, County Judge W.E. Spencer issued an order during the April term of the quorum court for an election to consider building a new courthouse and to establish a tax to pay for it. Despite the economic upheaval caused by the Great Depression, the people of Drew County approved the project and tax in a May 16 election. A commission of men from Monticello, Tillar, Wilmar and Jerome was formed to oversee the project. They hired Little Rock architect H. Ray Burks, who also designed courthouses in Lonoke, Russellville and DeWitt. On September 16, 1931, contracts were issued for Hewitt and Russell of Little Rock to build the new courthouse, with Pfeifer Plumbing Company and Arkansas Electric Company of Little Rock handling the utilities.
With the 1872 courthouse still occupying the town square, the Advance Monticellonian reported that “after much careful consideration the commissioners decided on the beautiful lot known as Whittington Grove, about 2 blocks from Court Square on South Main Street.” The new courthouse was dedicated with appropriate fanfare on July 4, 1932, at a final cost of $150,000.
Burks’ design for the new Drew County Courthouse is among the most interesting in the state. The massive three-and-one-half story limestone structure exhibits the vertical emphasis of the then-popular Art Deco style, which is augmented by the wrought-iron ironwork on the exterior and the stylized sunburst reliefs above the side entrances. But it also displays a Classical vocabulary seen in the massive Ionic pilasters and classical, symmetrical window treatment. The interior includes marble wainscoting and steps and steel railings that emulate the exterior metal work. Eighty-five years after its construction, the Drew County Courthouse continues — and will continue — to serve the needs of its residents.