The old Lynchburg Courthouse on Court Street across from Monument Terrace is one of the oldest and most well-known buildings in the Hill City.
William Sharswood Ellison — the architect who designed the iconic landmark — is slightly less well known.
“He’s a mystery to me,” said Ted Delaney, director of the Lynchburg Museum at 901 Court St. “This building is one of the most iconic buildings in the city, but we know very little about the man who envisioned it.”
Regarded as one of Lynchburg’s first architects of note, little of Ellison’s life is known before he came to Lynchburg in 1849 with his brother Andrew Ellison, both of whom were employed as division engineers with the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. Records show the brothers were natives of Massachusetts but nothing is known of their professional training and education.
“Every morning, I pass by a bronze plaque that says ‘William Ellison, architect,’” Delaney said. “So he is definitely identified with the building but I don’t know anything about him after the courthouse was completed. He could have died a couple of years after construction or moved away and lived another 50 years and we wouldn’t know because there are no records.”
Shortly after moving to Lynchburg, Ellison designed the city’s first train station, the Virginia & Tennessee Union Station. The gothic-style building was completed in the early 1850’s and served passengers on Lynchburg’s two railroads — the Virginia & Tennessee and the Southside.
The station was the first of three union stations to serve Lynchburg and was in use until about 1885, when the Virginia Midland Depot was put into service as a union station and this building was used as a freight office. The building later was demolished and nothing of Lynchburg’s first rail station is left from its original location on 9th Street.
The Ellison brothers moved on to different careers in the early 1850s — Andrew opened his own building company, Piedmont Works, and William was hired to design the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the corner of 7th and Church streets and the Second Presbyterian Church on 9th and Church streets. Neither of the churches — which were designed in the gothic style — stands today.
“William Ellison certainly had a hand in creating some beautiful and iconic structures in Lynchburg,” Delaney said. “However, he probably would have been entirely lost to history if the courthouse would not have been preserved.”
In 1853, Lynchburg officials hired Ellison to design a new courthouse. Andrew Ellison’s company was contracted to build the courthouse for $18,000, although he later was replaced by another contractor during construction. The building was completed in 1855. Although Ellison’s earlier designs were Gothic style, he designed the courthouse in Grecian Doric style, which combined classical Roman and Greek elements.
An 1854 article in the Lynchburg Daily Virginian discussing the courthouse’s construction said, “the architect really knew his stuff” when designing the building.
During the Civil War, the courthouse held the Confederate Army Quartermaster’s Department, the Soldiers’ Aid Society and the Soldiers’ Library. From April 6 to April 10, 1865, Lynchburg was the capital of Virginia and Delaney said the courthouse most likely served as the state’s capital building.
“This building was the center of a lot of activity in the city,” Delaney said. “It was the trademark of Lynchburg and was featured in a lot of postcards and logos in the past.”
The building served as Lynchburg’s courthouse until a new courthouse was built in 1955. The old courthouse continued to house the Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts during the 1950s and 1960s until the ceiling in one of the courtrooms collapsed in 1966.
Lynchburg City Council voted to restore the building as part of the city’s 1976 bicentennial project and after a series of renovations; the former courthouse reopened as the Lynchburg Museum in 2008.
“This is the only building William Ellison designed that we know is still standing,” Delaney said. “That is a shame that so little of his work remains.”
Delaney said even though details of Ellison’s life and career are few, his design of the courthouse “leaves a fingerprint” about Ellison’s work as a railroad engineer.
“When they were doing restoration work about 15 years ago, they uncovered part of the wall and the way the wood was joined at the joints is the way you would do a railroad bridge,” Delaney said. “No other architect would have designed it that way unless they had that background as a railroad engineer.”
In his book “Lynchburg: An Architectural History,” author and architectural historian S. Allen Chambers discussed Ellison’s engineering background in his solution to installing a clock in the courthouse’s dome.
“The clock may have presented William Ellison with his greatest challenge,” Chambers wrote. “Obviously, the clock face should go in the pediment, but what was Ellison to do with the weights? His ingenious solution in his towerless Greek temple was placing the weights and chains within the hollow cylinder of the central pair of columns of the portico — well protected and completely hidden from view.”
Very little is known about Ellison’s career after the completion of the courthouse. Andrew Ellison became chief engineer for the Covington & Ohio Railroad in the mid 1850s and moved to Brazil in 1856 to plan the construction of one of the first railroads in Brazil. Records show that William Ellison was one of the engineers that worked with his brother on the project.
A New York Times article from 1860 reported Don Pedro II, the emperor of Brazil, accompanied Andrew Ellison on a tour of the railroad and dined with him and his wife after.
“Mrs. Ellison was permitted to honor his Majesty by facing him at the dinner table,” according to the article.
Not much is known about Ellison’s life after he worked on the railroad project in Brazil with his brother but records of an 1867 Masonic Lodge meeting in Burlington, Massachusetts — which show a William Ellison as being elected as an officer in the lodge — indicate he may have returned to his native Massachusetts.
It also is possible Ellison may have traveled to Europe where he continued work as an architect. An architect named William Ellison filed a lawsuit in 1876 in London against a man that allegedly refused to pay Ellison architect fees for a project he was contracted to work on.
It is unclear if either the William Ellison in Burlington, Massachusetts, or the William Ellison in London were the Ellison who worked in Lynchburg.
“Lynchburg was such a small town in the 1850s that not a lot of records exist from the time the courthouse was constructed,” Delaney said. “And the profession of architect really didn’t gain prominence until after the 1850s. Until later in history, often the men that designed buildings were the contractors that built them. It was rare that a small city like Lynchburg would, at that time, hire an architect for a project.
“So this building is all that is left of William Ellison’s life in Lynchburg,” Delaney said. “But if you are going to leave only one building behind to remember you by, I think this would be the one you would want.”