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PALACES OF JUSTICE, PART ONE

getaway-chicago logo Assuming you know where it is, a visit to your county courthouse isn’t a trip you’d probably relish. For some it means real trouble, for others it is just a nuisance. So why in God’s name would the Getaway Guys visit Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan county courthouses? Their reasons for doing so reside in the title of this article: Palaces of Justice.

court1-1court1-2Some time ago Neil and Alan published an article about Manitowoc, Wisconsin and among its architectural gems of enduring interest was/is the Manitowoc County Courthouse, a somewhat grandiose structure difficult to miss when entering downtown on Route 42. Along with the popular Romanesque architectural idiom for public buildings in the latter part of the 19th century, Neo-Classical design was favored too. The exterior of the courthouse (architect: C.H. Tegen) was in the process of being clean and restored, so curious about what, if anything, was happening inside, the Guys investigated. Happily most of the interior had been restored to its original state, an A+ for Manitowoc County.

court1-3Maybe a Friday was an off day for justice, but almost dead silence reigned among plaintiffs and attorneys that day, which got the Getaway Guys wondering. Neil and Alan had been in contemporary courthouses (not as felons or killers) where an audible hub-bub was heard, so why the difference? Might an interior suitable for a Renaissance prince be a factor? Were those present struck dumb by the faux (yet effective) opulence of this restored Italianate interior? In today’s interconnected world, opulence can be viewed daily on television or at a local movie house, but in the late 1900s when America was predominately a rural society removed from extravagant architecture of any sort, a county Palace of Justice may have been not only impressive, but also forboding. Was a psychological factor in play?

In 2012 finding extant 19th century county courthouses is challenging. If they haven’t been demolished, their exteriors have been altered and their interiors “modernized.” Some (like Manitowoc’s) are preserved (in and out), while others are preserved externally, but “remodeled” inside for alternative purposes.

court1-4The Getaway Guys started looking in Woodstock, Illinois (McHenry County) where its 1857 county courthouse has been an exciting arts center for the past 20 years. In essence, its original courtroom still exists, but it is devoid of any of its original decorative embellishments. Elaborate plaster chandelier medallions still exist in its spacious courtroom, but any extensive stenciling popular in its day has disappeared beneath several coats of ugly green paint.

In Oregon, Illinois (Ogle County) and Mount Carroll, Illinois (Carroll County) Neil and Alan experienced a pleasant surprise and some disappointment. The Ogle County Courthouse was built in 1891 (architect: George O. Garnsey). Its exterior is Neo Classical and well preserved. court1-5With the assistance of Anthony Kartsonas of Historic Surfaces, LLC the interior has been revitalized to meet contemporary county administrative needs, but portions have been resurrected to their original decorative motifs via extensive investigation and exacting replication. In particular, the ceiling of its former courtroom is exquisite in its restored stenciling. The exterior of the Carroll County Courthouse is in excellent shape. Built in 1858 (architect unknown), its exterior is well preserved. Of brick construction with a distinctive tower, it doesn’t seem to be particularly Romanesque and definitely not Neo-Classical. It is just solid and commanding. Internally it has been altered to meet contemporary requirements and nothing of its former possible-probable self remains. The Guys were disappointed, but understood why it happened.court1-6

On Wisconsin! Neil and Alan visited Waukesha, West Bend and Port Washington, the County seats of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee Counties. All three of their courthouses are in excellent exterior condition and a delight to see. Not pure Romanesque and definitely not Neo-Classical, all three share a common architectural element in their respective soaring towers, towers apparently being a Wisconsin “biggy” in the late 19th early 20th century. Now a laudable and interesting history museum, the former Waukesha County Courthouse no longer has much of its original interior details. Here and there some still exist and a restoration of its once grand court room is underway, dependent on adequate funding. In West Bend the Guys hit pay dirt. court1-7The former Washington County Courthouse (1889, architect: Koch, E.V. & Company) is now the Washington County Historical Society Museum and although its hours are somewhat limited, someone had the brains to preserve its interior as well as its exterior. More subdued and less rich in ornamentation than the Manitowoc County Courthouse’s princely interiors, the Washington County Courthouse helps to exemplify Neil's and Alan’s supposition about a correlation between justice and architectural design. Not breathtaking (but not utterly utilitarian), its rich application of beautiful wood and assertive iron work blend to make its spaces both period timely and serious. court1-8The exterior is brick, not the corbeled stone of the pure Romanesque effect, but it incorporates Romanesque elements. Its location on perhaps the highest point in West Bend adds to its impressiveness and seriousness.

Closed on Saturdays, the Ozaukee County Courthouse in Post Washington (architect: Fred Graf, 1901) is still in use and its interior could not be viewed. It too is a “towered” edifice of ample proportions, and very much in the Romanesque style with its corbeled stone and arches. court1-9Outwardly it has been preserved and appears to be well maintained. There are more contemporary additions, but they do not intrude on the original architecture.

Can architecture (external-internal) affect behavior? The Getaway Guys think so with regard to county courthouses. Consider two alternative examples: cathedrals and art museums. No matter when or where they were built, a respectful decorum appears to be required. Whispered exchanges and unhurried movement (a paralysis of everyday behavior) seems to strike most both deaf and dumb. Neil and Alan think late 19th century County Courthouses had the same effect, but for different reasons. April 2012

To be continued.

 

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