Main Street U.S.A.: Exploring the Nation's County Courthouses
Few things are as unique to the United States as the county courthouse. These beautiful buildings are probably the most underappreciated in the country and their presence is everywhere, or at least in every county in the United States, which number 3,141. The golden age of building county courthouses coincided with the building of the numerous state capitols during the nineteenth century. It was the characteristic gabled, Victorian look that lent itself to popular imagination inspiring places like Disneyland’s ersatz Main Street.
Counties are administrative units in the U.S. states and their origin dates to colonial times. They are slightly different than English counties, at least administratively. English counties were derived from the old shires that predated the Norman Conquest. When the Normans took over in the 13th century they renamed the Shires after counts or lords, who administered the areas. The English counties are, after the British government, the next largest administrative unit in England, whereas in the United States, counties come in third place after the federal and state administrative apparatus. Also, Britain’s administrative units are further complicated by historical precedent. Kent, Essex, and Sussex are considered traditional counties because they predated the Norman Conquest and were formally independent kingdoms. Adding to the confusion are the self-governing lands in the United Kingdom such as the Isle of Man, a British Crown Dependency, and so on. The United Kingdom’s historical legacy has given it many administrative aberrations but it is safe to say the U.S. county is an inherited administrative unit borrowed from the British. The U.S. model too has a few administrative aberrations but they are not as numerous as the British. For instance, the state of Virginia has independent cities that are not part of any county and are self-governed municipalities. Louisiana has parishes, derived from its Napoleonic history, but they are practically counties with a French twist.
County courthouses in the United States serve a number of useful purposes and it is in these buildings that local government functions to record, arbitrate, and govern. The county judge and clerk are located at the county courthouse, for instance. The county courthouse is located in the city or town that is called the county seat. Many of the buildings are of neoclassical design and the great era of courthouse building naturally followed the era of geographical expansion in the United States, or the nineteenth century. Consequently the architecture of the courthouses reflects this period which brought about a profusion of building styles which ranged from Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, neoclassical, Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, and modern. Many courthouses were also rebuilt because of damage, fire being the greatest, and growth in population which demanded larger quarters to administer county governments. Many of the first courthouses, especially on the fluid western American frontiers, were naturally one-room wooden buildings that were rebuilt to accommodate a larger space. Many of the nation’s county courthouses built in the second half of the nineteenth century are eclectic exhibiting a mesh of architectural styles but mostly incorporating elements of Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts, and Romanesque Revival. Domes, columns, and cupolas are common in this period with ornamental stone work and statues of Greek and Roman gods adorning the heights.
Colonial style (1600 -1850). There aren’t many of these remaining in their original form although newer courthouses adopted some colonial elements in their designs. Colonial style was commonly used in the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies and was an outgrowth of late medieval English architecture. The buildings were typified by steep roofs, small windows, and a central chimney. A good example of an original colonial style courthouse is the one in Smithfield, Virginia, now a museum, originally constructed in 1752.
Federal style (1780 – 1830). Federal style architecture incorporated classical elements in the spirit of the early Republic which closely associated itself with both early Greek democracy and the Roman Republic. Federal architecture was an American version, or outgrowth, of Georgian architecture popular in England and the colonies too. Symmetry and balance were key architectural features as well as incorporating a pediment above the main entrance. A Neoclassical influence was clearly another incorporation of the Federal style courthouses and buildings. The New Castle Courthouse in New Castle, Delaware, which was also the seat of the state government for some time, is a unique Georgian style building that dates to 1732.
Greek Revival (1805 – 1850). This was a huge movement and many grand buildings were constructed using elements of ancient Greece. Symmetry, pediments, pilasters, and fronts columned with Ionic or Doric columns were all common motifs of this movement and elements of Greek Revival lasted well after the period died out. In the United States it was Thomas Jefferson who was largely responsible for initiating this building movement when he commissioned Benjamin Henry Latrobe to build public buildings in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Many early state capitols also popularized the Greek Revival building. The Greek Revival movement gave way to Roman Revival and Neoclassical before morphing into the Beaux-Arts movement. Roman Revival was characterized by domed courthouses and the Beaux-Arts added a heightened degree of ornate and decorative trimming on both the exterior and interior of the courthouses. The old courthouse in Portsmouth, Virginia, now a museum, is a good example (see picture on this hubpage).
Beaux-Arts (1885 – 1920). Popular during the American Renaissance and Gilded Age the Beaux-Arts movement originated in Paris, France and quickly caught-on in the United States. Characterized by decorative statues and a high degree of ornamentation this style, popular in county courthouse construction and state capitols, epitomized the excess of Gilded Age America. Beaux-Arts had strong Neoclassical roots and was often accompanied by columned entrances, huge domes with fine detail, and arched windows. It’s worth noting that the Beaux-Arts was often merged with Romanesque styles popularized by the architect Henry Hobson Richardson which was reflected among many courthouses built during this time period to give them an appearance of stout walls with fine details in the interior. Other ecclectic styles known as Empire or Victorian were also common in the late nineteenth century. Although not as ornate as Beaux-Arts, at least in the interior, these building styles were very common in courthouses and are characterized by the "gingerbread" style features with gables and widow watch towers.
Spanish Colonial Revival (early 20th century). Namely Spanish Colonial Revival became popular in the West, especially California, to reflect the building heritage from earlier Spanish architecture and the movement was inspired by the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 which took place in San Diego. As a result the movement peaked from 1915 to 1931 and Mission and Mediterranean Revival as offshoots. This style often had Moorish elements, so it is ecclectic as it is beautiful. A great example is the Santa Barbara County (California) courthouse which was rebuilt in this style after suffering damage from an earthquake. This building, completed in 1929, replaced the earlier Greek Revival courthouse which stood on the same spot.
Neoclassical (late nineteenth/early 20th century). This movement began in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century carried over to the United States as the Greek Revival and elememts of the Federal and into the 20th century where it enjoyed a plethora of large civic buildings such as state capitols and county courthouses of the American Renaissance Movement (1880-1917) which included the Beaux-Arts Movement (see above).
Art Deco (1910 – 1940). Art Deco incorporated neoclassical, cubist, and modernist techniques and resulted in some of the most famous landmarks in the country, most notably the Chrysler Building in New York. It was a purely decorative movement having few political philosophical roots and its emergence inevitably trickled down to the design of courthouses during the early twentieth century. Sleek lines that reached upwards coupled with ornate doorways and corners highlighted this style.