In the 1880s, Central Florida boomed with growth fueled by the coming of the railroads, and Orange County leaders envisioned a grand courthouse – a $57,000 Romanesque structure with a clock tower – that would put their county seat, Orlando, on the map as a real city.
It “stood as one of the defining characteristics of downtown Orlando until it was torn down in 1957,” according to the historical marker at Heritage Square park, where the building once stood.
Construction on the building began in 1892, when the county’s population had reached almost 12,600. When its cornerstone was laid, schools were closed for the day, and children marched in orderly rows to watch the ceremony. One of the children, little Ada Bumby placed a 1891 Indianhead penny in a time capsule to be sealed in the cornerstone. It marked a milestone in the region’s history, as it was the county’s first important public building. But some residents considered it to be opulent and beyond the reach of a frontier Florida town. “The townspeople were appalled,” Orange County historian Jean Yothers told the Orlando Sentinel in 1986. “What in the world would little Orlando and Orange County do with such a tremendous building?” Over time however, the “extravagant” building and clock tower became a beloved landmark.
According to early-Orlando historians, the clock in the building’s 80 foot tower was the inspiration of William C. Sherman, Orlando’s first jeweler and volunteer fire chief, who spearheaded a public fund drive to raise $3,000 for the clock. Sherman went to Boston to get it from the venerable E. Howard Watch and Clock Co., whose timepieces include clocks in the Ferry Building in San Francisco and the Wrigley Building in Chicago. Sherman also obtained the four-foot, 1,500-pound bell from the Shane Bell Foundry of Baltimore, and for several years, he went up into the bell tower and wound the mechanism himself on Sundays.
Beginning in 1895, the bell could be heard throughout the city as it rang on the hour. Children learned to count by hearing the bell toll. It also rang on other rare occasions, such as jubilantly announcing the armistice that ended World War I. The bell is now on display in the current courthouse lobby, on loan from the Orange County Regional History Center. It was most recently sounded by Circuit Judge Lawrence Kirkwood on the one year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
See Judge Kirkwood's historic bell ringing.