The American Courthouse Tradition: Three Mid-Michigan Structures as Illustrations
Not All County Courthouses are Alike
The American county courthouse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seems almost a stereotype on the American cultural landscape. Indeed, so many are clones that one might be excused for making the old adage "if you've seen one, you've seen them all." However, not all are alike. Even though they share a certain similarity--especially in the external architecture and inevitable clock tower--they can reflect a diversity in geographic and cultural expression as broad as America itself. For example, there is the famous Santa Barbara County Courthouse north of Los Angeles, a beautiful blend of Spanish and tropical setting reflecting the history, culture and climate of southern California. Henry Hobson Richardson might be thought of as the father of standardized American courthouse architecture, although he designed churches and libraries as well. His unique style, often referred to as "Richardsonian Romanesque", has become synonymous with his name. Three interesting examples can be found in the mid-Michigan area. In the counties of Ingham, Eaton and Shiawassee, there are three different specimens that tell unique stories, and stem from alternative traditions.
Ingham County Courthouse
The Ingham County Courthouse is located in Mason, the county seat. While interesting in itself, it is also the center of an area which might be described as pure Americana. The historic buildings of the courthouse square are almost as noteworthy as the courthouse. This is the commercial center of Mason, and is reminiscent of Old Town in Lansing, earlier profiled in these pages. A variety of colors, especially light blue, lend a period flavor to this district. Outside, there are the usual monuments to America's past wars, as well as squirrels gathering acorns on a typical fall afternoon. Inside, some of the courtrooms reflect a Victorian ambience, with period wooden furniture. There is even a banjo clock featuring--of all people--Napoleon Bonaparte! Overall, there is little change to mar the area, and it looks almost as it did when Governor Fred Warner dedicated this courthouse in 1904. All that is missing is a barbershop quartet to round out the picture.
Eaton County Courthouse
Charlotte is the seat of Eaton County, to the west of Lansing. Like most Michigan communities, it needed a center of civic focus and anchorage. A new courthouse was dedicated in the 1880's, adding another late Victorian gem to mid-Michigan. Although not used as a courthouse at this time, it harks back to the great judicial tradition. Surrounding the old structure is an historic district, including the sheriff's residence (1873), which has become a center of education and preservation. Indeed, there is a museum on the second floor of the courthouse, which is dedicated to preservation of objects pertinent to the history of this region. Eaton County has always been in the figurative shadow of the Lansing metropolitan area, and preservation efforts such as this one signal its arrival as a cultural force in its own right.
Shiawassee County Courthouse
Shiawassee County was almost forgotten in the historical evolution of Michigan. Originally an underpopulated county compared with the rest of mid-Michigan, a way had to be found to attract settlers and to consolidate governmental functions. A public square was developed in downtown Corunna and a courthouse was erected. This was later demolished to make way for a larger courthouse, which was designed by prominent mid-Michigan architect Claire Allen. Although he worked primarily in Jackson and Washtenaw Counties, this rare Shiawassee County effort stands as one of his outstanding achievements. Built in 1903-04, it was constructed of Bedford limestone and features a three-tiered clock tower. It houses county offices but also still contains court functions. With its state and national historic register designations and with its Claire Allen pedigree, this courthouse is a worthy rival to its counterparts in Charlotte and Mason.
The Courthouse of the Future
Clearly, the American county courthouse is in a state of architectural transition. Yesterday's Victorian model has given way to today's more streamlined and functional plan. While progress may be inevitable, too many of the recent examples lack a clear focus as expressions of civic pride. Previously, courthouses were perched on a hilltop or parked in a public square as centerpieces of the community. Today, they tend to blend in with surroundings, but lack that unique style so characteristic of the past. While the future offers intriguing potential with newer materials such as aluminum and glass, there is still missing that unmistakable something which the Victorians understood so well. It is therefore all the more imperative to preserve these vanishing classics before too many more meet the wrecker's ball. They don't build them like this anymore.