“BS + JS Forever” — at least that was the plan when one of them carved that short, simple declaration of love into a wall at the Gwinnett County Historic Courthouse in Lawrenceville at some unknown date.
It’s one piece of old graffiti in the courthouse, some of which dates back more than 100 years, that can be found behind a locked door in the clock tower, where the prying eyes — or rather the mischievous hands — of the public are not allowed.
Over the years, dozens of messages have been left on the walls. Sometimes it was in pencil with elaborate handwriting styles that have not been in fashion since the Edwardian Era. Other times, it’s crudely carved into the walls. Over the years, some of the handwriting has been smudged or faded away as new messages are left on top of them.
“Most likely, a lot of it was done before it was a policy to lock the door, so probably during weddings or special events,” Historical Courthouse Program Coordinator Renee Arant said. “Or even, because we’re a park and we’re open to the public, folks can walk through (and got access).
“They probably got curious, like most people do, and said, ‘Oh, look, it’s a closed door. Let’s go see what it is.’”
The historic courthouse holds many secrets that the public doesn’t get to see. For example, the scorched and soot-covered foundation of the county’s original courthouse, which burned down in 1871, is visible in a lower electrical basement.
“It’s a lovely old building, and it’s got a lot of history,” Arant said. “A lot of people have come through here for the 130 years that it’s been here for all different reasons. It is a treasure.”
The graffiti is one of the more interesting hidden secrets, though, if only because it gives a glimpse into what kind of markings people would leave behind decades ago.
A lot of the messages appear to have been left in the last quarter century. However, some of them appear to have been left when the building was still a working courthouse, a function it hasn’t served in since the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center opened around the beginning of the 1990s.
The messages themselves range widely in content. Early messages read more like poems, and many people simply wrote their names, where they were from and the dates of their visits.
“You’ve got someone just telling who they were and where they were from … and that was all they did,” Arant said.
There are declarations of undying love carved into walls, sometimes with hearts carved around them. The messages are sometimes amusing to read and show a range of people who have visited, or in at least one case allegedly did not visit, the clock tower over the years. For example, “Chad wuz here” in 1991.
“Mike wasn’t here,” county spokeswoman Heather Sawyer said with a laugh as she and Arant read one of the markings.
“It could be worse,” Arant said.
“They’re keeping it clean,” Sawyer responded.
“Big Chico” from Miami also visited at some unknown point, as did “Robby Robinson,” “Wayne Merrit,” “Wendell Patton” and “Big John Rease,” among others. “H.M. Lott” appears to have visited the tower in 1942 and left a couple of marks.
There is another mark that reads “Seefeld ’44,’” although it’s not clear whether the 44 means 1944 or something else.
“When I first saw that, my first thought was ‘football player, No. 44,’” Arant said.
Some of the messages show graffiti, as an art form, is not a late 20th-century or early 21st-century concept. One artist, presumably nicknamed “Doc,” wrote his moniker as a large drawing, dated 1913.
“If that’s accurate, then that’s pretty neat to know that before there was no allowance of public access, that folks did have the freedom and felt like they could come up here and mark their spot (and say), ‘Hey I was here,’” Arant said. “No, when you look at train tracks and trains themselves, people are tagging I guess is what they call it now.
“They were tagging 100 years ago. They just didn’t call it that.”
The messages cover a wide period of time. The earliest message is dated “August the 12th, 1908,” which is the year that the current clock tower was built. Although the staff at the courthouse tries to keep the door to the stairway locked so the public can’t get into the tower, sometimes the door is left open just long enough for someone to sneak in.
The most recent marking reads “DW 2016” in vivid purple ink. It’s a small marking, but it stands out as the only one that isn’t done in pencil or as a carving in the wall.
“No! No!” Arant said when it was discovered on Wednesday.
Arant said that since the facility is technically a county park, and houses the Gwinnett Historical Society offices, visitors are routinely wandering around. It’s also a wedding venue so occasionally wedding party guests find ways to get into the tower and leave their marks as well.
“It’s funny because the ones down here (at the bottom of the staircase), they would only come this far and then probably came back out and closed the door real quick,” Arant said.
And, then there are more vulgar messages and drawings that, to put it somewhat gently, talk about who did what to whom — or at least what they wanted to do to them — in somewhat graphic detail with profanity.
The style of writing on some of these non-family friendly messages appears olden, possibly from the World War II era, but the content might be described as something more in line with the crude scribblings commonly found these days on the walls of a bathroom stall.
One person who appears to have written about a half dozen messages that have similar old-style handwriting was especially heavy on the profanity.
But, when it comes back to BS and JS, and whether they stayed together after they carved their “forever” message, that remains unclear. Arant chose to be optimistic, though.
“Let’s hope so,” she said.