When author Harper Lee‘s newly published novel, “Go Set a Watchman” was released two weeks ago, it was heralded with special screenings of the film based on her now classic book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”, midnight book parties and readings, and all sorts of other events all intended to celebrate or promote (depending upon your point of view) this book. The book, despite or perhaps because, of the controversy surrounding it, quickly climbed to number one on the New York Times best seller list where I suspect it will remain for a while. Lee’s other book, after all, is now regarded an American literary classic and is studied by schoolchildren and beloved by readers.
It is one of my personal favorites too. A few years ago, I found an anniversary copy of the book which I purchased as a gift for my husband and then, as luck would have it, actor Gregory Peck signed it when he came to the Mount Baker Theatre with his ‘one-man’ speaking tour in 2000. He still cut a striking and statuesque figure even then at age 83 and was as gracious as he appeared to be in many of his on-screen roles. I must admit that I was appropriately starstruck with the 6-foot 3-inch tall actor who played Atticus Finch as he stood right there before me after his onstage performance writing an inscription and his name into the book .
I was reminded of all this recently when Lee’s other book made the headlines. My backstage encounter with Peck also came to mind a couple of years ago when I was commissioned to photograph a group of local political activists promoting women candidates for the cover of our weekly alternative newspaper, the Cascadia Weekly.
We staged it, with permission, in the courtroom of the three-story Federal Building in downtown Bellingham. The building, designed in the Italian Renaissance style, is prominently located on a downtown corner where, every Friday since the 1960s, there has been a ‘peace demonstration.’ (I’ll have to write another blog about that one day.) Few locals ever go inside the noble structure except to purchase stamps or to mail a package from the post office branch located in the southeast ground floor corner. But they should as it’s a real design treat.
The courtroom where the photo for the cover was done at a time when the courtroom wasn’t currently in use. It was once a Federal District Courtroom. (More recently, it’s been proposed that the courtroom come back into use as one of the city’s courtrooms.) I was so taken by the beauty of this judicial room that I stayed after my photo session for the Weekly to photograph it for myself. Although not an exact duplicate of the courtroom seen in the classic black and white film, it clearly is of a similar style and period so that just walking through huge wooden door so you transported through imagination to that setting. I could see Atticus Finch sitting at the defendant’s large, heavy oak table appealing to the judge positioned in the behind the big bench at the front of the room.
An elegant Honduran mahogany rail separates the court floor from the mahogany benches for the audience. Tall, two-story arched windows line one side and allow natural light to fill the entire room. Running beneath the windows is the jury box, where, if I closed my eyes, I could see the jurors of that classic case intently following the arguments being presented before them.
There is no balcony in the Bellingham courtroom, as there is in the movie, but your eyes are led overhead to a coffered, vaulted ceiling that is 20 feet tall at its highest point. “Each octagonal ceiling coffer has an egg and dart moulding that surrounds a delicate stucco rosette planted in the coffer’s center,” according to the building’s nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. It is an impressive judicial setting, one that certainly harkens to another era when such detail was the norm for important institutional structures.
Indeed, many small towns in this country have courtrooms of this sort built, as was this one, in the earlier part of the 20th century where the trial as seen in “To Kill a Mockingbird” could have taken place. They remind us of a time when attorneys, like the fictional Atticus Finch, were eloquent, righteous and respected. Perhaps that’s one reason why some are so disappointed by the Atticus Finch of Lee’s new book, and why it has given rise to the controversy of whether the author ever intended it to be published. Regardless, if you live in the area, or are visiting, and have never seen the courtroom inside the Bellingham’s Federal Building, go upstairs sometime and have a peek. And let me know if it doesn’t make you think of Harper Lee’s literary classic.