County (Michigan) Courthouse, LaPorte County (Indiana) Courthouse, Jasper County (Indiana) Courthouse, Lake County (Indiana) Courthouse" />

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PALACES OF JUSTICE, PART TWO

getaway-chicago logo Based on present population distribution, most Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan county courthouses are in pretty odd places. When most (not all) county boundaries were firmly established in the latter part of the 19th century, county seats may have made more sense than they do today. Of the thirteen late 19th and early 20th century county courthouses visited by the Getaway Guys in March and April 2012, eight are geographically located in the center of their respective counties, which makes sense. The other five are not (politics?). court2-2court2-1Before states and/or the U.S. Government exerted greater judicial influence, county seats were probably a bigger deal than they are today and an impressive courthouse exuded authority and prestige (not unlike the Carnegie Libraries built around the same time). Late 19th and early 20th century picture post cards (what’s a post card?) frequently featured county courthouses and Carnegie Libraries as a point of local pride and sophistication. Encountering one of these grand edifices today makes one curious about its cost. Labor and materials were “cheap,” but a dollar bought a lot more than it does today.

court2-3court2-4Whatever the dollar difference ratio may be between then and now, opulence in the design of county courthouses has long since disappeared. Palaces of Justice are now places of functional justice, and whether or not the difference is advantageous or not is a matter of conjecture and curiosity.

We Getaway Guys started our second county courthouse journey in Michigan where we visited Centreville (St. Joseph County – 1899: architect Sidney J. Osgood), Paw Paw (Van Buren County – 1901: architect Claire Allen) and Hastings (Barry County – 1892: architect Albert E. French). All three continue to function in a legal capacity and have been successfully restored to their original condition, with minimal alterations to accommodate contemporary needs. court2-5Externally the St. Joseph County Courthouse is modest in its Romanesque Revival architectural attributes. A brick structure with stone embellishments, this courthouse is strikingly reminiscent of many seen for this article. A different kettle of fish, the Van Buren County Courthouse in Paw Paw is pure Neo-Classical inside and out. Complete with columns and a rotunda, it is impressive and beautifully restored. The only thing missing is a statue of Jupiter or Julius Caesar. Not Romanesque or Neo-Classical, the Barry County Courthouse in Hastings is supposedly Queen Anne in style, according to its official blurb. Neither Getaway Guy could see anything Queen Anne-ish about it. It is a solid, old-fashioned courthouse with none of the ornamentation or fret work associated with the Queen Anne style.

 

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In La Porte and Rensselaer, Indiana the La Porte County Courthouse (1894: architect Brentwood S. Tolan) and Jasper County Courthouse (1898: architect Grindle & Weatherhogg) are closed on Saturdays, both being judicially active buildings. court2-9court2-10court2-11Unlike their Michigan brethren, these palaces of justice are grandiose in size and their Romanesque ornamentation, complete with arches, stylized vegetal carvings and gargoyles (Rensselaer). Over the main entrance of the latter, two stone gargoyles are frightening and foreboding. Maybe they were meant to scare people half to death or just give up! The Lake County Courthouse (1878: architect J.C. Cochran) in Crown Point is no longer used as a courthouse but is now a focal point of community activity. Devoid of grand ornamentation internally, its huge vaulted spaces are reminiscent of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, and oddly it is a popular place to get married. The silent movie star-heart throb, Rudolph Valentino married somebody (Natasha Rambova?) in the Lake County Courthouse in 1923, but according to his web biography it is not clear who he married on that date. A decade later John Dillinger escaped from the Lake County jail using a fake gun made of wood. That is known for sure!

court2-12By contemporary judicial architectural standards, late 19th and early 20th century county courthouses are somewhat puzzling. They are far more distinctive in their size and embellishments than their contemporary counterparts. Cost can’t be the only explanation. The United States is far more prosperous today than 100+ years ago. County-community pride as a singular answer does not cut it either. The Guys think the answer resides in the importance of justice when counties were more central to everyday life. In addition to being functional, architecture is also symbolic. A square box or a mud hut can suffice if utterly necessary, but the administration of justice may be better served in a dignified and imposing edifice to drive home the importance involved.

Of the thirteen courthouses examined by the Getaway Guys,court2-13 three were Neo-Classical and the remainder Romanesque or quasi-Romanesque. So what was with the Romanesque? The origins of Romanesque are not clear cut. Elements of Roman and Byzantine building techniques and ornamentation are evident, and in its earliest manifestation pillaged fragments of Roman buildings (a ready source of material) were probably incorporated, rendering the results eclectic. The Jasper County gargoyles are early Gothic inspired, and the La Porte County stone faces are of late Roman influence. In the United States the Romanesque was popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), a style ultimately known as Richardsonian. Oddly, none of the “Romanesque” courthouses incorporated the style on their interiors. Perhaps it was thought to be too gloomy and foreboding in a space supposedly dedicated to transparency and equality. Before its demise at the end of the 19th century (killed by the Neo-Classicism of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair), the Romanesque was very popular for courthouses, city halls, churches, libraries, prisons and insane asylums, all very serious places and to one degree or another, intimidating. May 2012

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