The Cornett Hotel circa 1914 sits on the corner of Crogan and Perry Streets. It was also known as the Hotel Pharr and Button Gwinnett Hotel. Today, the corner has been remodeled, housing Dominick’s Italian restaurant.
County seat coming full circle
By Katie Hart Smith
Lawrenceville, Georgia, located approximately thirty miles east of the city of Atlanta, is the county seat of Gwinnett County. The municipality was named in honor of Captain James Lawrence, a naval officer during the War of 1812 who commanded the Chesapeake.
During an attack with the British ship, Shannon, Lawrence was fatally wounded. As he lay dying he gave the naval command, “Don’t give up the ship.” Lawrence’s dying words became the watchword of the U.S. Navy (Long & Long, 1997).
Lawrenceville prior to 1906. The Gwinnett County Courthouse can be seen to the rear on the right.
Lawrenceville was the first town in Gwinnett County to be settled. On March 4, 1821, 250 acres were purchased for $200 and county officials selected the site for the first courthouse building. Lots for homes were sold at public auction (Long & Long, 1997).
The city continued to grow and evolve over the years. Almost 200 years later, according to the 2010 census, the population of Lawrenceville was 28,546. Among those who have witnessed these changes since their childhood include, Mayor Judy Johnson, who grew up in this “small” town, was born and raised in a house on Culver Street, and attended school “up on the hill” on the highest part of Lawrenceville located on the corner of North Perry and Oak Streets.
“One of my best memories growing up in Lawrenceville is when I was in middle school, my friends and I would walk to Monfort Drug Store (currently McCray’s Tavern on the Square) to get soda or ice cream before going home,” recalled Mayor Johnson. Her mother, Willela Allison Jordan, a social worker and homemaker and her father, Hilliard Rhodes Jordan, an attorney who served in the House of Representatives and was the Mayor of Lawrenceville for sixteen years, were instrumental role models for Mayor Johnson, showing her first-hand what a sense of community looked like.
Pictured: Mayor Judy Jordan Johnson Lawrenceville’s first female Mayor.
The Mayor reflected on Lawrenceville’s past. “I remember the whole community rallied around the local school system and its activities by attending football, basketball, and baseball games. There was a lot of comradery. The athletic programs were supported by all of the local businesses. There was also a lot of pedestrian traffic, especially around the historic downtown square at the Gwinnett County Courthouse when court was in session. My dad’s law office was located across the street in the building where La Cazuela is now. I use to work in his office during the summer months. Lawrenceville was also a big shopping destination. The closest shopping mall was Lenox Mall. People came from all over to shop in downtown Lawrenceville at John Wilson’s Five and Dime where you could buy anything from school supplies to china. Williams Dress Shop, Saul’s, and Belk were our local clothing stores.”
The former thirty-year math teacher, basketball coach, and “Teacher of the Year (1990) at Central Gwinnett High School fondly remembers her father also serving as a Justice of the Peace. “Dad would be called on to perform a wedding. Mom wanted everyone to get started off on a good note. The nuptials were held in our home. Mom baked them a cake and occasionally served as the witness, I played the organ, and Dad performed the ceremony. We even threw rice at the newlyweds when they left.”
Decades later, Lawrenceville continued to develop and expand. While the downturn in the economy and real estate market adversely affected Lawrenceville and other bustling cities and towns across the nation, the once-abandoned developments and properties are surging back. Restaurants with a variety of cultural cuisines, local businesses, and residential areas such as the town homes and condominiums at Cornerstone, located a block from the historic Lawrenceville Square and Lawrenceville Lawn, are providing a resurgence of activity that embraces this multi-cultural community “where among Gwinnett students, more than 100 different languages are spoken within the Gwinnett County Schools.” (Gwinnett Chamber Economic Development). The City of Lawrenceville is home to Gwinnett Medical Center, Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC), the Aurora Theatre, Gwinnett County Airport at Briscoe Field, and a dynamic film industry.
McGee’s Department Store, circa 1900s. Downtown Lawrenceville was a major shopping destination.
Mayor Johnson believes 2017 will be an exciting year for the city. In a recent article written by Chuck Warbington, Lawrenceville’s City Manager, he outlined the city’s 2017 goals. “Our goals are simple — retain workforce, recruit business, create housing opportunities, develop land to highest and best use, fill the downtown with viable businesses and create a live-work-play destination in the heart of our community.” (Gwinnett Daily Post, 1/3/17).
The list of 2017 projects in the city of Lawrenceville include: Construction on the college corridor that will connect GGC with the historic downtown Lawrenceville area. Input from GGC students who conducted a community survey of residents and local businesses were presented at the January work session meeting. Perry and Clayton Streets plan to be converted from one-way to two-way in an effort to improve traffic flow and congestion. Infrastructure improvements to roads, sidewalks, gas utilities, drainage are also slated for this year.
Monfort Drug Store is now home to McCray’s Tavern on the Square, located at the corner of North Perry and East Crogan Streets.
In addition, public/private development opportunities are underway. Slow Pour Brewing Company, owned by Marty Mazzawi and John Reynolds, plans to open this year in an over 100 year old building at 407 North Clayton Street. Mayor Johnson said the 3,000 square foot tasting room will allow visitors to sample the brewery’s beers after touring the facility.
A block away, the Lawrenceville Depot has become The Gwinnett School of Music. The building, constructed in 1910, located at 106 Depot Street, not only houses the Gwinnett School of Music, but is being utilized as a venue for house concerts on the weekends and other events. All five of their locations (Duluth, Grayson, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, and Suwanee) offer private music lessons on a variety of instruments. In addition to instrumental instruction, they offer vocal lessons, a Preschool Music Class, and the Atlanta area’s first rock school program - the Gwinnett School of Rock. The Gwinnett School of Music is contributing in making the area around the Depot an entertainment district.
Mayor Johnson, excited about the accomplishment of previous projects, remarked, “I am most proud of the Aurora Theatre and the opening of the Lawrenceville Lawn.” The City of Lawrenceville continues to work hard revitalizing the downtown district. “I’m truly blessed to be a part of the history of this city. It’s exciting to be a part of its past and I’m looking forward to a great future.”
Pictured: The Gwinnett County Courthouse in 1984.
Like her father, Mayor Johnson adopted his “open door policy” and is highly engaged in this community from volunteering at local schools, participating in church and various events, to orienting new GGC students, parents, and faculty to Lawrenceville. Mayor Johnson, recognized by many, serves as a great ambassador to this city by walking the talk and reminding us what the spirit of community looks like.
The Mayor shared this story. She observed a father and his son walking into City Hall one day. Mayor Johnson saw the little boy point at her as she walked by and overheard him ask his father, “Do you know who that is?” The father shook his head and shrugged, “No.” The little boy replied, “Well, I do! Dad, that’s the Mayor. She knows me!”
Pictured: The Gwinnett County Courthouse was restored in 1991.
The City of Lawrenceville has come full circle, embracing the sense of community, welcoming all, and resurging as an interactive community for residents to live-work-play.
Pictured: Did you know? Lawrenceville has a time capsule to be opened in 2076. It contains letters from 5th grade students at Bethesda Elementary School to the “children of the future.” It was sealed and presented to Mayor Rhodes Jordan on April, 29, 1976.
Long, M.F. & Long, V.F. (1997). Lawrenceville, Georgia, County Seat of Gwinnett – A City with a Rich History.
Long, M.F. (2008). About Lawrenceville.
Additional resources about Lawrenceville and Gwinnett County include:
City of Lawrenceville website: http://www.lawrencevillega.org
Gwinnett Historical Society: http://www.gwinnetths.org
Stancil, W.D. Vanishing Gwinnett, Gwinnett County, Georgia: Pictorial History of Bygone Days. (1984).
Stancil, W. D. (2001) Vanishing Gwinnett, Gwinnett County, Georgia: Pictorial History of Bygone Days II.
Slow Pour Brewing Company: http://www.slowpourbrewing.com
The Gwinnett School of Music: http://www.gwinnettmusic.com