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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 13 late 19th- and early 20th-century county courthouses the Getaway Guys visited in March and April 2012, eight are geographically located in the centers of their respective counties, which makes sense. The other five are not.
Before states and/or the U.S. government exerted greater judicial influence, county seats were probably a bigger deal than they are today. 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 frequently featured county courthouses and Carnegie libraries as a point of local pride and sophistication.
Opulence in the design of county courthouses has long since disappeared. Palaces of justice have become 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.
Externally 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. 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.
In La Porte and Rensselaer, Ind., the La Porte County Courthouse (1894; architect: Brentwood S. Tolan) and Jasper County Courthouse (1898; architect: Grindle & Weatherhogg, Heinzman Brothers) are closed on Saturdays, both being judicially active buildings. Unlike their Michigan brethren, these palaces of justice are grandiose in size and feature 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 make them 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 Ram bova?) in the Lake County Courthouse in 1923, but according to his web biography it is not clear whom. A decade later John Dillinger escaped from the Lake County jail using a fake gun made of wood. That is known for sure.
By 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 cannot be the only explanation. The United States is far more prosperous today than a hundred years ago. County and community pride on their own do 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 13 courthouses examined by the Getaway Guys, three were Neo-Classical and the remainder Romanesque or quasi-Romanesque. The question “So why the Romanesque?” was raised.
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), in 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 forbidding 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 intimidating to some degree.
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.