‘Literary Capital of Alabama’: Monroeville as Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Part 1

On the way driving back from our Florida vacation a few days ago, my wife and I got off I-65 to see Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of Harper Lee, who seems to have based many of the settings in her book To Kill a Mockingbird on real places in this town. The old Monroe County courthouse has been preserved as a museum and gift shop.

View of Old Courthouse's east side.

View of Old Courthouse’s east side, from Alabama Avenue.

The Harper Lee books I borrowed from my hometown library are at Monroeville!

The Harper Lee books I borrowed from my hometown library are at Monroeville!

Explanation. Sign reads: ...

The sign explains that the Old Courthouse was used from about 1903 until the early 1960s, when the new courthouse was built. This is the building that contains the courtroom used as a model for the court in the book and in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird.

View of Old Courthouse's south side. Note the curving walls, presumably matching the courthouse wall's curve.

View of Old Courthouse’s south side. Note the curving walls, presumably matching the courthouse wall’s curve.

South lawn of old courthouse, facing west. The old bank building in which A.C. Lee had a law office is visible.

South lawn of old courthouse, facing west. The old bank building in which A.C. Lee had a law office is visible as the brick two-story with the arched windows.

A sign near statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

A sign near statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

Statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

Statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

A live oak tree on the courthouse square, one of the shade trees described in the book.

A live oak (I think) tree on the courthouse square, one of the shade trees described in the book.

View of Old Courthouse's west side. The little houses are sets for the annual productions of a play of To Kill a Mockingbird put on by local actors.

View of Old Courthouse’s west side. The little houses are sets for the annual productions of a play of To Kill a Mockingbird put on by local actors.

A plaque to Atticus Finch from the Alabama State Bar located at courthouse grounds.

A plaque to fictional Atticus Finch from the Alabama State Bar located at courthouse grounds.

View of the Old Courthouse from a northeast perspective.

View of the Old Courthouse from a northeast perspective. To the right of this picture is the new courthouse.

The new (built in early 1960s) Monroe County courthouse. We were told that, like the old courthouse, there is just one courtroom in this building.

The new (built in early 1960s) Monroe County courthouse. It’s directly north of the Old Courthouse. We were told that, like the old courthouse, there is just one courtroom in this building.

Monroe County

Monroe County, Alabama, in the southwest corner of the state, has the Alabama River as part of its western boundary.

A view of the east side of Alabama Avenue while standing on east side of Old Courthouse. The two-story building was once the millinery shop owned by Truman Capote's Faulk relatives. The brick one-story to the right (south) is the post-office, dating to 1937. According to a book written by Monroe County Heritage Museums, the post office was on the south side of the courthouse square before 1937.

A view of the east side of Alabama Avenue while standing on the east side of Old Courthouse. The two-story building was once the millinery shop owned by Truman Capote’s Faulk relatives. The brick one-story to the right (south) is the post-office, dating to 1937. According to a book written by Monroe County Heritage Museums, the post office was on the south side of the courthouse square before 1937. At far right, there’s a mural of a mockingbird on a car dealership wall.

Mural on east wall of building at southwest corner of Claiborne and Alabama, southeast of courthouse and diagonal from the post office.

Mural on east wall of building at southwest corner of Claiborne St. and Alabama Ave., southeast of courthouse and diagonal from the post office.

Mural of a scene from To Kill a Mockinbird. This is on the west wall of a building south of Old Courthouse, which is at left side of this pic.

Mural of a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird. This is along Mt. Pleasant Ave. on the west wall of a building southwest of Old Courthouse, which is at left side of this pic.

View of Mt. Pleasant Avenue, the street on the west side of courthouse, from northwest corner of courthouse square. The building with the slanted roof was the town jail at the time of the book's setting. The building with the two-story facade was the location of the town newspaper at that time. This seems likely to be the model for the scene in the book where Scout and Atticus break up the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson. In an old picture of this building, there is a smaller door, three upstairs windows, and one downstairs window.

View of Mt. Pleasant Avenue, the street on the west side of courthouse, from northwest corner of courthouse square. At the left side of photo is the brick building where A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father and the model for Atticus Finch, had his law office. Moving to the right (which is north), the building with the slanted roof was the town jail at the time of the book’s setting. The building in center of photo with the two-story facade was the location of the town newspaper at that time. This seems likely to be the model for the scene in the book where Scout and Atticus break up the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson.

Jail from courthouse lawn looking west. The short building in the middle now is labeled as belonging to Monroe County Sheriff.

Jail from courthouse lawn looking west. The building labeled “RSVP” was once the jail. In an old picture of this building, it had a smaller door, three upstairs windows, and one downstairs window. The short building to the north is now labeled as belonging to Monroe County Sheriff.

View of the courtroom from between judge's bench on right and jury area on left.

View of the courtroom from between judge’s bench on right and jury area on left.

My attorney wife was thrilled to pretend to sit (signs said to not actually sit there) at the judge's bench.

My attorney wife was thrilled to pretend to sit (signs said to not actually sit there) at the judge’s bench. She said she first considered becoming a lawyer after reading Mockingbird, and that visiting this courtroom was as exciting as seeing an original copy of the Constitution would be.

Cowhide-seated jury chairs.

Cowhide-seated jury chairs.

The third-floor balcony from where, in the book, Scout, Jem, Dill, Rev. Sykes, and others watched the trial. While the courtroom seemed to be air-conditioned when we were there, the third-floor landing was not, and it was noticeably warmer than the second-floor courtroom was.

The third-floor balcony from where, in the book, Scout, Jem, Dill, Rev. Sykes, and others watched the trial. While the courtroom seemed to be air-conditioned when we were there, the third-floor landing was not, and it was noticeably warmer than the second-floor courtroom was.

View of the court from the balcony.

View of the court from the balcony.

A note in Nelle Harper Lee's handwriting.

A note in Nelle Harper Lee’s handwriting.

The second floor of museum has a room dedicated to Harper Lee and another to Truman Capote, who were neighbors and childhood friends in Monroeville.

The second floor of museum has a room dedicated to Harper Lee and another to Truman Capote, who were neighbors and childhood friends in Monroeville.

This is a closer-up section of the poster.

This is a closer-up section of the poster.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book.

Soap carvings and pennies, presumably there as examples of those objects mentioned in the book.

Soap carvings and pennies, presumably there as examples of those objects mentioned in the book.

This courthouse room off the central lobby of the first floor is set up as a typical lawyer's office of the 1930s, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.

This courthouse room off the central lobby of the first floor is set up as a typical lawyer’s office of the 1930s, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The book mentions that lawyer Atticus had a set of the Code of Alabama in his office. This photo's a bit out of focus, but I loved that the volume titles included "Bastardy."

The book mentions that lawyer Atticus had a set of the Code of Alabama in his office. This photo’s a bit out of focus, but I loved that the volume titles included “Bastardy.”

In the Bird's Nest gift shop, among the postcards, books, and t-shirts, there's a metal tub of old photos. Museum staffer George Jones explained that these photos belonged to a town photographer and local people come in and dig through the photos and buy ones they like for a dollar a piece.

In the Bird’s Nest gift shop, among the postcards, books, and t-shirts, there’s a metal tub of old photos. Museum staffer George Thomas Jones explained that these photos belonged to a town photographer and local people come in and dig through the photos and buy ones they like for a dollar a piece.

"Tequila Mockingbird" is long what "To Kill a Mockingbird" has sounded like -- I'm glad I'm not the only one.

I’ve always thought “To Kill a Mockingbird” sounded like “Tequila Mockingbird” — and so I was glad to learn that someone had made such a cocktail.

See photos, Part 2.

3 responses to “‘Literary Capital of Alabama’: Monroeville as Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Part 1

  1. What a fascinating pilgrimage to make – so wonderful to see the courthouse so beautifully preserved. I love the Celebration of Reading plaque – also a good prompt to make more time to read!

    • I second your appreciation of the efforts of the museum staff to maintain the courthouse and make it available to the public. The current importance of To Kill a Mockingbird to Monroeville would be hard to overstate.

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