Order in the Court! – Records of Courthouses in the National Register of Historic Places

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

Supreme Court of the US
Photograph of Supreme Court Building (National Archives Identifier 594954)

There are more than thirty five thousand records with the search term “courthouse” in the National Register of Historic Places records, including both the United States Supreme Court Building (National Archives Identifier 117691883), and the Oklahoma Cherokee Supreme Court Building (National Archives Identifier 86510854).

“The Supreme Court Building, 1st and East Capitol Streets, NE, in Washington, DC, is one of the last of the large neoclassical Federal buildings erected in the 1930s. It was designed by the noted architect Cass Gilbert who is best known as the architect for the Woolworth Building in New York City. The classical Corinthian architectural order of the building was selected because it best harmonized with nearby congressional buildings. The building was designed on a scale in keeping with the importance and dignity of the Court and the Judiciary as a coequal, independent branch of the United States Government, and as a symbol of the national ideal of justice in the highest sphere of activity . . . Sixteen marble columns at the main west entrance support the portico. On the architrave above is incised “Equal Justice Under Law.” Capping the entrance is the pediment, filled with a sculpture group by Robert Aitken, representing Liberty Enthroned guarded by Order and Authority. On either side are groups of three figures depicting Council and Research which Aitken modeled after several prominent personalities concerned with the law or the creation of the Supreme Court Building. At the left are Chief Justice Taft as a youth. Secretary of State Elihu Root, and the architect Cass Gilbert. Seated on the right are Chief Justice Hughes, the sculptor Aitken, and Chief Justice Marshall as a young man . . . The bronze doors of the west front weigh six and one-half tons each and slide into a wall recess when open. The door panels, sculpted by John Donnelly, Jr., depict historic scenes in the development of law; the trial scene from the shield of Achilles, as described in the Iliad; a Roman praetor publishing an edict; Julian and a pupil; Justinian publishing the Corpus Juris; King John sealing the Magna Carta; The Chancellor publishing the first Statute of Westminster; Lord Coke barring King James from sitting as a Judge; and Chief Justice Marshall and Justice Story.”

Berryman Cartoon - Supreme Court
The Supreme Court Returns to Its Permanent Home (National Archives Identifier 5743098)

“When the Federal Government moved, in 1800, to the permanent capital in Washington, the court again moved with it. Since no provision had been made for a Supreme Court building. Congress lent the Court space in the new Capitol building. The Court was to change its meeting place a half dozen times within the Capitol. Additionally, the Court convened for a short period in a private house after the British had used Supreme Court documents to set fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812. Following this episode, the Court returned to the Capitol and met from 1819 to 1860 in a chamber that has recently been restored as the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Then frcm 1860 until 1935, the Court sat in what is now known as the Old Senate Chamber.

“Finally in 1929, former president William Howard Taft, who was Chief Justice from 1921 to 1930, persuaded Congress to end this arrangement and authorize the construction of a permanent home for the Court. Architect Cass Gilbert was charged by Chief Justice Taft to design a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Cherokee Supreme Court, Oklahoma
Cherokee Hills Byway – Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum (National Archives Identifier 7717614)

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Supreme Court Museum, was “erected in 1844 of bricks made near the site . . . a plain two-story structure on a sandstone foundation. The roofline, which has been altered, is covered with composition shingles. Each brick wall contains four double-hung windows, two up and two down. All windows, frames, and sills are of wood.”

“The Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed to Indian Territory from its ancient homeland in the Southeastern United States in the fall and winter of 1838-1839. This tragic trek to a then virtually unknown wilderness has since come to be known as the “Trail of Tears,” justifiably so because roughly one-fourth of those making the journey failed to arrive. The various routes westward were marked by a steady procession of graves of the new-born, the aged, and the diseased. The tragedy of this forced removal is made even more poignant by the fact that the Cherokee Nation of Indians had, in 1822 — sixteen years before their Trail of Tears began — adopted a republican form of government patterned on that of the then relatively new United States of America. Included was a national judicial system, at the head of which stood a National Supreme Court.” “More important than the building itself, however, was the mere fact of its erection. Ihe fact that here in the wilds of a new country, far removed from their traditional home, an Indian tribe had erected a lasting symbol of its adherence to the rule of law as the will of the people and of its recognition of the pre-eminence of law in organizing and regulating social order. Thus the Supreme Court Building of the Cherokee Nation — built over I30 years ago and the only government building to survive the ruinous Civil War when the Cherokee Nation itself was almost totally devastated — stands today as mute evidence of a native people’s attempt to govern itself by law rather than by tribal custom. That it is still in use (acquired by Cherokee County in 1904, it now serves as the county school superintendent’s office) would also attest to the quality of Cherokee workmanship in the pre-Civil War period.”

Vandalia, IL Courthouse
Courthouse on U.S. Route 40 at Vandalia, Illinois (National Archives Identifier 135802743)

In Vandalia, Illinois, is the old State Capitol and Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 28892839), “two stories tall, of red brick, and 100 feet by 50 feet with walls l8 inches thick. It was modified Federal in style . . . A main entrance on the south face of the building opened on a hallway the central point of which was about two feet closer to the west wall than the east wall and led to a rear door on the north wall . . . The entrance at the rear was just east of the stairway which led on the second floor to a spectator’s gallery which projected into the two rooms on the east and west ends of the building. Internally the building is restored as it was in the period 1836-1839 but externally the building is restored as it was in the period 1859-1899 during which time it was the Fayette County Courthouse.”

“Between December 3, 1836 and July 4, 1839, the Vandalia State House, was the official seat of Illinois government . . . Nationally, the building is important because in it the Tenth General Assembly issued the charter for the city of Chicago (March 4, 1837). Stephen A. Douglas was a member of the Tenth General Assembly. The State House has been most popularly known, however, for its association with [Abraham] Lincoln. He was a member of all the sessions of the House of Representatives which met in the building. He belonged to a group of nine tall Sangamon County legislators, the “Long-Nine”, who have long been thought to have traded their votes on internal improvements in order to gain support for the re-location of the State’s capital in Springfield . . . He was admitted to the bar by the Clerk of the Supreme Court whose offices were in the State House . . . From 1839-1857, the west half of the building served as the Fayette County Courthouse and the town of Vandalia maintained a school on the east half of the second floor. In 1857, the town sold its interest to the county which remodeled the building during the period 1858-1859. The county remained the sole occupant of the building until February 1933.”

Effinghmam County IL Courthouse
Historic National Road – Effingham County Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 7719344)

Also located in Illinois, in this case Effingham County, the courthouse (National Archives Identifier 28892829) “is the fourth courthouse in the county. It is the main building located in section twenty of Douglas township . . . There are two other structures located on the courthouse grounds. One is a bandstand located in the northwest corner of the block . . . There is a small, one-room structure on the west side of the Courthouse. It was used as Santa’s house at Christmas time. A memorial cannon, dedicated in 1910 is located on the Southwest corner. It commemorates Thomas Howard, Earl of Effingham, who resigned his commission as Deputy Marshall of King George III of England rather than draw his sword against the American Colonies in their struggle for independence. A descendent of his, another Lord Effingham, visited Effingham during the Bicentennial Celebration. Effingham County and the city of Effingham are named after his ancestors.”

“The first two courthouses in Effingham County were located in Ewington, four miles west of Effingham. In 1860 the county seat was moved to Effingham. The first courthouse in Effingham was a brick structure, two stores high with a graduated cupola . . . There are three other Second Empire buildings in Effingham County, all of them houses located in Effingham. The courthouse is decidedly the fanciest of any of the county’s Second Empire buildings . . . The Effingham County courthouse is central to the business affairs of Effingham County. It houses, or has housed, most of the county officials and their records. It is also home for the Effingham Circuit Court. In 1875 the Effingham County courthouse was the site of the trial of Nathan Burgess on a change of venue from the Fayette Circuit Court. Burgess was accused of killing Joseph Robbins, a watchman on the Vandalia bridge east of Vandalia. The trial concluded with the conviction of Burgess and his subsequent execution on the courthouse lawn on June 18, 1875.” “The courthouse has also been the center of community activities. In addition to its role as the county’s center of government. The Courthouse was central in the celebration of Illinois’ centennial in 1918. There was a rally held at the courthouse and, according to Robert Luchtefeld, a local historian, William Jennings Bryan was one of the noted speakers. Bryan, of course was born in nearby Salem, Illinois, and was a stunning orator and candidate for the President of the United States several times. Robert Overbeck, Clerk of the Circuit Court in Effingham, said the courthouse served as a training site for Civil Defense volunteers during World War II. The volunteers would go to the roof and try to identify airplanes from that vantage point.”

Millersburg County OH Courthouse
Amish Country Byway – Millersburg Courthouse Tower (National Archives Identifier 7716945)

In Marion County Ohio sits the Marion County Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 71990167), “designed by D. W. Gibbs and Company, Marion County Courthouse was built from 1884 to 1886. The two story building with raised basement is constructed of stone on a stone foundation . . . A square tower sprouts from the flat roof of the building. The base is paneled and constructed of stone. The shaft is composed of a square-columned, open belfry. Dividing the lower and upper portions of the shaft are a blank frieze, denticular cornice, and a narrow tapering roof. Four clock faces are located in broken pediments above the belfry. The tower is capped with a segmental, round metal dome. The tower rises about forty feet above the roof line. The interior of the courthouse is designed around a stairway with symmetrical divided flights located on the west side of the building.”

“Marion County was formed March 1, 1824 and was named for General Francis Marion, an officer in the Revolutionary War . . . The county’s first courthouse, built circa 1824, was a frame building that the county outgrew by the 1830’s. Late in that decade a new, brick Greek Revival structure was built. This building remained as the courthouse until the present structure was completed on a new site. During the 1880’s the Marion County Commissioners decided to construct a new courthouse as the old Greek Revival structure was too small for the county’s needs . . . Marion County Courthouse is a good example of an extant Ohio courthouse built in the 1880’s designed in a style which Goeldner calls “County Capitol” and which is a rather complex combination of several late nineteenth century modes well put together.”

Fayetteville County WV Courthouse
Midland Trail – Fayetteville County Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 7720371)

In Fayetteville, West Virginia, is the Fayette County Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 86534979), “was constructed in 1894-95 following plans and specifications drawn up by prominent Wheeling architects Edward Bates Franzheim and Millard F. Giesey . . . The structure they designed is not outstanding in terms of style or construction, but it is a good example and detailing in excellent. This Romanesque public building was well adapted to the requirements of a county entering on a coal-boom period, however, and has since served as the seat of its government, having been used considerably longer than any of its three predecessors at Fayetteville. Fayette County was created in 1831 from parts of Greenbrier, Kanawha, Logan and Nicholas counties. A struggle ensued to determine the location of the county seat with the “communities” of New Haven, Vandalia and Falls of Kanawha vying. It was eventually settled in favor of Vandalia, as Fayetteville was then known, and the first courthouse was erected there in 1838. A second courthouse was soon erected, however, and remained in use until it proved insufficient and was replaced in 1887 with a brick and stone structure designed by Baltimore architect Frank Davis. Undoubtedly the county was satisfied with this building and anticipated many years of service. It was a double disaster, therefore, in terms of lost space and documents as well as lost capital investment, when the building burned in April of 1893. At first it was thought that the remains could be salvaged and the structure rebuilt, but it soon became apparent that after only six years it would have to be replaced.” “Overall, the courthouse expresses an Interpretation of the Romanesque style used in so many public buildings and churches between about 1870 and 1900. It is not a heavy, rock-faced masonry, Richardsonian example, but its use of stone at the basement, in belt courses and arches, and in porches and pilasters complements the brick main walls. Aside from the generally pleasing appearance initially evident to the viewer, though, a more thorough investigation reveals numerous details that make the Fayette County Courthouse especially attractive. From the vaulted brick ceiling in the basement, up the cast-iron stairs to the 1895 bell in the tower that still rings on court days, the interior displays a fine array of embellishments. Corner fireplaces, five-panel oak doors, fanlights above the entrance vestibule and the courtroom, and many original decorative brass plates and door knobs dispell the first impression of simplicity.”

Chase County KS Courthouse
Flint Hills Scenic Byway – Chase County Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 7718387)

In Cottonwood Falls, Kansas you can find the Chase County Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 123863531), “a magnificent three-story building constructed of tooled limestone, which was quarried on the town site. The building sits on a rough hewn limestone foundation base which projects several feet above ground level . . . An ornate cornice provides a separation between the tooled limestone and the red-painted mansard roof. An ornamental white iron fence is located on the top perimeter of the mansard roof. A clock bell tower extends above the roof line.”

The Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls has served that Flint Hills county since 1873.  In 1871 voters of Chase county twice went to the polls and voted for a courthouse. The first election on May 23 decided that public buildings should be constructed; at the second election on August 16 the people approved a bond issue of $40,000 to build a courthouse and jail . . . The people of Chase county have a great pride in their distinctive courthouse. In 1953 they held an 80th “birthday party” at which a spotlighting system was installed to floodlight the north facade and dome. When fire of undetermined origin damaged part of the tower in December, 1966, the people insisted that it be restored exactly as it was. The Chase County Courthouse is a truly excellent example of the Renaissance influence on Kansas buildings.  This magnificent architectural landmark is also the oldest courthouse remaining in use in Kansas.”

President Harry S. Truman at Federal Courthouse in Kansas City MO
President Truman at Federal Courthouse in Kansas City (National Archives Identifier 348264465)

In Kansas City, Missouri, the Federal Courthouse (National Archives Identifier 63819288), “located at 811 Grand Boulevard in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, occupies a city block situated between 8th Street on the north, McGee Street on the east, 9th Street on the south, and Grand Boulevard on the west. A product of the “New Deal” program, the building’s cornerstone was laid on October 20, 1938, and the first federal agency moved in on September 21, 1939. A dedication ceremony, attended by Harry S. Truman, then a U.S. Senator, was held on October 5, 1939. Under Criterion A, as a courthouse for the United States Circuit Court of Appeals and the courthouse for the United States District Courts for the Western District of Missouri from 1939 to 1998, the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office has a strong association with the interpretation and administration of the nation’s legal code. In its capacity as both an appellate court and a district court building, the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office was the setting for several landmark desegregation, anti-bust, and criminal cases during the mid to late twentieth century. In addition to housing the federal courts and associated judicial offices, more than sixteen different government bureaus and departments also occupied the building, including a post office substation and Harry S. Truman’s local senatorial offices. At the local level of significance, in Kansas City, the construction of the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office culminated a decade-long federal and local government-sponsored building program initiated to provide local employment and economic stimulus during the lean years of the Great Depression.” “The U.S. Courthouse and Post Office, located at 811 Grand Boulevard, is Kansas City’s third federal building. The history of the federal government in Kansas City begins in 1845 with Col. William M. Chick as postmaster for the “Town of Kansas.” The post office was a drawer in a desk of his general store on the corner of Main and Levee Streets. The “Town of Kansas” was an important stop in the great migration westward and was soon to become a gateway for settlers traveling to the west and southwest. Kansas City’s first permanent federal building, the “U.S. Custom House and Post Office” was located at the comer of Ninth and Walnut Streets. Construction of the building began in 1879 and was completed in 1885. The building and site cost $325,000. Twin towers highlighted the three-story gray sandstone structure. One of the towers contained the “Town Clock” and bell. Its government functions were removed to a newer federal building in 1900, but the building was not demolished until 1930, when the clock and bell were incorporated into the new twin-spired Fidelity National Bank and Trust Company high-rise building, which replaced it on the site. The government functions of the small, three-story building at Ninth and Walnut were removed to a much larger second federal building, the “U.S. Post Office and Custom House.” Construction of the building was begun in 1892 and completed in 1900. It was located on the east side of Grand Boulevard between Eighth and Ninth Streets, the same site now occupied by the subject building. The second U.S. Post Office and Custom House featured a great gilded dome, spacious corridors, and high ceilings. The building and site cost $1,352,078. The years following 1900 were years of great history making and years of phenomenal growth throughout the country. The “age of steam” was soon replaced by the “age of gasoline and electricity.” The activities of the federal government were expanded to meet the needs of the changing times. By the time of the First World War, the building had become inadequate to hold all of the federal agencies. Due to a lack of space, the newer agencies went into rented quarters in the downtown area. In 1932, a large general Post Office was constructed at 315 West Pershing Road at a cost of $4,000,000.”

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