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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Shelby County Courthouse Statues

Posted By on Tue, Aug 24, 2010 at 2:34 PM

Vance Lauderdale as Authority
  • Vance Lauderdale as "Authority"
I spend a lot of time hanging around the Shelby County Courthouse, waiting for my various trials to begin, and I've noticed that people — far too many people, if you ask me — usually walk right past the magnificent statues that guard that entrances without even noticing them.

So I thought I'd change that by telling you about them, and I think you'll be impressed. After all, it's true that a Lauderdale (I needn't name names) served as the model for "Authority" (shown here).

But first, let me chat about the courthouse, which the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide say exudes "serene classical confidence." As I do, myself! This truly magnificent building opened in 1910 to replace a jumbled collection of courtrooms that had previously been jammed into rented space at the old Overton Hotel at Main and Poplar. A plaque outside notes that this is the largest and most ornate courthouse in Tennessee, and it would be hard to argue with that. The city fathers (and mothers) wisely chose the sturdiest materials available (blue limestone from a quarry in Bedford, Indiana) and the best designers for this important civic project.

A courthouse building commission (you can't do anything in Memphis without forming a commission first, you know) selected the prestigious firm of Rogers and Hale, with offices in New York and Chicago. James Gamble Rogers was the primary architect, because (according to the official Report of the Commission published in 1910), he "was found to be specially qualified in designing buildings of a monumental character."

But about those statues ...

The courthouse commission selected a prominent artist, J. Massey Rhind (some sources say J. William Rhyne) to carve six much-larger-than-life figures to guard the west and south entrances of the building. Each figure is different, representing: Wisdom, Justice, Liberty, Peace, Prosperity, and (the one shown here ) Authority. Each was carved from a single block of limestone, and each weighs — well, it's hard to say. But you betcha they are heavy! One day, when the police weren't looking, I leaned all my weight against Justice, and it didn't budge (how appropriate).

Aren't you curious about the sculptor?

Born in Scotland in 1860, Rhind moved to this country in the late 1800s. He rather quickly established a reputation as one of America's most gifted sculptors, and today the many monuments and memorials he carved grace public buildings, cemeteries, and parks from Washington, D.C., to Washington State. Perhaps his best-known works (outside of Memphis, I mean) are the imposing figures of "Victory" and "Peace" that adorn the entrance to Grant's Tomb in New York City.

It's beyond comprehension today, but the entire construction budget for the Shelby County Courthouse was just $1.5 million, though I know that was considered an astonishing sum at the time. Rhind charged just $5,000 for each of the six figures. He also carved other decorative elements, including the elaborate pediments, bringing his total bill to precisely $74,302.10.

I wonder what that dime was for? Why not just round it off at an even $74,302? At any rate, I think it would cost a lot more than that to carve just one of those figures today.

Okay, I've done my job here. Now, the next time you go by those statues — even if you are in shackles! — you can look up and appreciate them just a bit more.

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