Have Camera, Will Travel

Jim Monacell knows your county courthouse

Published in 2007 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2007

If Jim Monacell isn’t the worldwide expert on Georgia county courthouses, he’s close. His favorite is in Cuthbert, the seat of Randolph County in southwest Georgia. The Queen Anne-style courthouse, which dates from 1886, boasts a cone-shaped clock-and-bell tower and exquisite master-craftsman touches throughout, including sunburst and tulip motifs in the woodwork and terra-cotta lizards on the roof.

“I just love all that detail,” says Monacell, a partner with Smith, Gambrell & Russell, pointing to a picture of the courthouse in his Midtown Atlanta office. “Counties used to lavish detail on courthouses that would be unimaginable today.

“Back then, tiny little counties like Randolph saw themselves as big growth areas,” he says. “They believed that the New South would receive all this capital investment. Railroads would tie cities together, and they would become big trade centers.

“So they built courthouses for their aspirations,” he says. “Things didn’t turn out quite the way they thought they would, but these wonderful monuments were left behind.”

Monacell specializes in bond law—working with cities, counties and authorities to structure financing on building projects—but he’s also an amateur photographer and architectural historian.

Years ago, wanting some pictures for his office, Monacell started taking his Canon SLR with him as business carried him from town to town. His first shot was in Newnan (Coweta County), where the 1904 Neoclassical Revival courthouse with a verdigris clock tower dominates the square.

Monacell was hooked. Georgia has 159 counties—second in number only to Texas’ 254—and five years later, he had a picture of every courthouse in his portfolio.

Photos of 15 of them hang in his office today, along with a striking Pat Magers painting of the old courthouse in DeKalb County, where Monacell lives. He also keeps a scrapbook of the complete collection on hand, with notations on each structure.

Flipping through it, Monacell points to various prized specimens. Hancock County is among Georgia’s poorest, but the county seat of Sparta boasts a magnificent Victorian-era courthouse. Another Victorian jewel is in Covington (Newton County), often seen in the TV series In the Heat of the Night.

Monacell’s hobby is an icebreaker for business. “When I meet people from some county, I can say I photographed their courthouse, and usually I can remember a story about it.”

Snapping all 159 was often a frenetic task. “I’d find myself finishing a meeting in one town and racing 20 miles to shoot a courthouse before it rained or the light faded,” he says. The final chapter of his odyssey came in Echols County, on the Florida line, and it brought a mixture of satisfaction, relief and sadness. “I felt like, what do I do now?”

Not to worry. For the past decade, Monacell has been photographing the stone angels that adorn cemeteries—an infinity of possibilities.

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