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The Cass County Courthouse in Virginia has been determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
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Points of pride
By Chris Young

There was a time when county courthouses were designed to be much more than simple government administrative centers, where residents could conduct real estate transactions, pay taxes or contest a traffic ticket.

They were points of pride - often built on the town square - intended to attract attention to a county's growth and prosperity.

"The courthouse really emerged in that era not only as an administrative center, but also it becomes the powerful architectural symbol of a town, and the courthouse square became the center of community life," says Mike Jackson of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Jackson, who has visited most of the county courthouses in the state, says the period from about 1860 to 1910 was the golden age of the county courthouse. 

"The courthouse square in the Midwest was equivalent of the village green of the East Coast."

As cities were developing, they began to compete to see who would become the county seat.

"It would make your town the pre-eminent town in the county," he says. "That was a big battle in the 19th century, to get your town to be the county seat."

Community leaders who fought to make their town the county seat were on the right track. Jackson says it is generally true that the county seat eventually became the largest town in the county.

Landmark sites
Thirty-one courthouses already are on the National Register of Historic Places or part of historic districts in their communities. Many more are eligible and a few are waiting to be assessed.

"There is a great legacy of these buildings that survive," Jackson says. "I'd say that 80 out of 102 are already on the National Register of Historic Places or are eligible.

"That's an 80 percent success rate of the enduring value of these buildings to their counties."

Modern courthouses are more likely to be office buildings.

"In that era, the courthouse was like a mini state capitol," he says. "There was a competition between counties, and we've all benefited from that. They made some really well-built buildings that have endured."

Macoupin County's courthouse - built to rival the State Capitol - cost a staggering $1.3 million by the time it was finished in 1870. It earned the nickname the "Million-dollar Courthouse."

Its domed roof alone cost in excess of $120,000, a huge sum 140 years ago.

Pike County's eight-sided courthouse located in Pittsfield has garnered national attention for its unique design, Jackson says. "It was designed by Henry Elliot, who also designed courthouses in Jersey and Edgar counties - and all virtually on the same plan," he says. 

Stone treatments on exteriors varied somewhat.

"The Pike County courthouse is a very striking presence," Jackson says. 

Of stone and stained glass
Burdette Irwin is head of maintenance at the Pike County courthouse, where he has worked for 23 years. He often gives impromptu tours to visitors who drop in.

He says it is the fifth courthouse building built in Pike County, a jurisdiction that once encompassed a third of the state of Illinois.

"It stretched from the Mississippi River on the west to the Illinois River on the east side and the Wisconsin border at the top and where the rivers meet at the south, which is now Calhoun county," he says of Pike's beginnings in 1821.

"That was Pike until 1825," Irwin says. "Then they formed other counties out of that."

Irwin shares history and stories with visitors, including some tidbits about the building's construction.

Robert Franklin, a stonemason by trade from England, was a farmer living in Pike County at the time the building was built in 1894. He asked why the stone for the courthouse exterior was sitting in the grass. Turns out there were no masons available to work on the job, so Franklin said he and his family could do it.

The transoms over doorways feature stained glass, which Irwin says was easier to make at the time than clear glass.

All of the stained glass windows cost about $550.

"It cost more to replace the glass in a single transom today than it cost to put all the original stained glass in," Irwin says.

Central Illinois boasts many historic courthouses.

One standout design can be found in Winchester, county seat of Scott County.

"That's just a jewel," Jackson says. "The building is relatively small and Scott County is small, but it's a piece of architecture that looks almost like something you would see on the French Riviera."

Jackson says the courthouse has no one dominant style. "I have a hard time classifying that one," he says. "It is so rich with the details. They added a little bit of everything."

Joseph Stewart, an architect from St. Louis, designed the Scott County Courthouse. It was finished in 1885.

From simple to grand
Early courthouses often were simple log structures that were replaced and updated as populations grew.

Logan County's seat of government moved from Postville to Mount Pulaski - where Lincoln practiced law and tried cases when he was traveling the circuit. Today, the Logan County Courthouse is located on the town square in Lincoln.

The Postville Courthouse in Lincoln is a replica. The original was moved to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Montgomery County, for example, kept adding on, remodeling and enlarging its courthouse as its population rose from a few hundred to 3,000 in the 1830s.

By 1868, the courthouse was deemed "too small and entirely unsuited to the condition and wants of the people." 

By 1870, the county's population grew to more than 25,000 people, and the old courthouse got another makeover.

Today, the historic courthouse sits across the street from the new, updated one that has a low, horizontal design, rather than one that can be seen from all directions.

The courthouse with the prominent dome or towers peaked in about 1890, Jackson says, and after the first part of the 20th century, the dome no longer was a part of new designs.

Jackson says the competition that came with those formative years left a great legacy.

"That's a great collection of buildings in this state."

 

Story published Friday, September 2, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 5 )

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