Waukesha County Historical Society Museum (formerly Waukesha County Courthouse), Waukesha, Wisconsin.

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For some, a visit to the county courthouse means real trouble, for others it is just a nuisance. So readers may wonder what could possibly motivate the Getaway Guys to visit Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan county courthouses. The title of this article says it: Palaces of Justice.  This month’s article explores historic courthouses in Illinois and Wisconsin; next time, those in Indiana and Michigan.

Some time ago we published an article about Manitowoc, Wis. 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 (C.H. Tegen, architect) was in the process of being cleaned 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.

Maybe a Friday was an off day for justice, but almost dead silence reigned among plaintiffs and attorneys that day, which seemed odd. In other contemporary courthouses an audible hubbub seemed constant, so the difference provoked thought. Perhaps the interior, suitable for a Renaissance prince, was a factor. Perhaps those present were 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 predominantly a rural society removed from extravagant architecture of any sort, a county Palace of Justice may have been not only impressive, but also forbidding and intimidating. Perhaps a psychological factor was in play?

In 2012, it is a challenge to find extant 19th-century county courthouses. If they have not been demolished, their exteriors have been altered and their interiors “modernized.” Some (like Manitowoc’s) are preserved; others are preserved externally, but “remodeled” inside for alternative purposes.

The Getaway Guys started looking in Woodstock, Ill. (McHenry County), where its 1857 county courthouse has been an exciting arts center for the past 20 years. 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, Ill. (Ogle County), and Mount Carroll, Ill. (Carroll County), we experienced a pleasant surprise and some disappointment. The Ogle County Courthouse was built in 1891 (George O. Garnsey, architect) and its well-preserved exterior is Neo-Classical. With 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 does not seem to be particularly Romanesque and is definitely not Neo-Classical. It is just solid and commanding. Internally it has been altered to meet contemporary requirements and nothing of its former self remains. We Guys were disappointed, but understood why it happened.

In Wisconsin, the Guys 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 (a la Carroll County), 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 courtroom is underway, dependent on adequate funding. In West Bend we hit pay dirt. The former Washington County Courthouse (1889, Koch, E.V. & Company, architects) 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 our supposition about a correlation between justice and architectural design.  Not breathtaking (but not utterly utilitarian), its rich application of beautiful wood and assertive ironwork blend to make its spaces both period-timely and serious.  The 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 Port Washington (Fred Graf, architect,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. Outwardly it has been preserved and appears to be well maintained. There are some contemporary additions, but they do not intrude on the original architecture.

So as to the question of whether architecture (external-internal) affects behavior, we Getaway Guys think it can, particularly 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. We think late 19th-century county courthouses had the same effect, but for different reasons.

Editor’s Note:  The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.