Courthouse Squares and the Virtues of Old Urbanism

By Michael W. Seymour and Amanda Rogers.

Published by The International Journal of Architectonic, Spatial, and Environmental Design

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

After decades of suburban development, the recent resurgence of traditional town building has resulted in increased emphasis on community open space as well as a greater appreciation for historic town centers. One of the most iconic of traditional urban forms is the public square around which many early towns were arranged. In the United States, many of these civic spaces follow geographer Edward Price’s description of the “courthouse square”: “a rectangular block surrounded by streets, with the courthouse, often the most ornate building in the county, standing alone in the middle of the square and the town’s leading business houses enclosing the square symmetrically on all four sides.” In Mississippi, courthouse squares are prevalent. These squares have not only provided a much needed focal point for the social, economic, and political life of many small (and often struggling) rural communities, but they also have played an important role in the literary works of Mississippi authors like William Faulkner and John Grisham. While the importance of these squares is unquestioned, the subtle differences in the scale, layout, and context of each square — that have a significant effect upon their long-term success or failure — are not well understood. This article examines the evolution of the state’s traditional courthouse squares, focusing primarily on three of the state’s most well documented examples. The discussion concludes with lessons derived from the history of the squares, which are presented for the benefit of designers of new town centers as well as those interested in preserving and improving historic public squares.

Keywords: Courthouse Square, Public Space, Town Square, Historic Preservation, Landscape Architecture

The International Journal of Architectonic, Spatial, and Environmental Design, Volume 7, Issue 4, December 2014, pp.1-17. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.678MB).

Michael W. Seymour

Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, Mississippi State University, MS, USA

Michael W. Seymour is an associate professor and the graduate coordinator in the department of landscape architecture at Mississippi State University, where he teaches landscape graphics, history of landscape architecture, and design studios. He has an undergraduate degree in fine art from Centenary College of Louisiana and a master's degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University. His research interests include design education and landscape history.

Amanda Rogers

San Francisco, CA, USA