Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Old Courthouses

Tom Barker, writing at the Southern (news for the southern tier of Illinois) website had a lovely article on old county courthouses and the problems associated with maintaining them.  Let me quote: 

"When the occasional construction of a new courthouse comes around, a county government is in love. Intoxicated with opportunity, county officials are like newlyweds, fully devoted to their newfound structural companion. Then, 20 years go by and the honeymoon is over. Eighty more years pass, and the relationship has turned to bickering, complaining and arguing over the remote.

But is the love still there?

Historic county courthouses have long remained architectural treasures for several Southern Illinois communities, as many standing today have been in use for more than a century. While longtime residents and history enthusiasts might not be able to imagine their towns without the landmark structures, the costs and hazards associated with maintaining the buildings aren't always ideal for county governments. The three-story courthouse in [Franklin County] has seen many changes since 1875, but some distinguishable features from the original design remain, including the original walnut staircases. .

The courthouse is a landmark and a historical centerpiece for Franklin County, . . . but 100-year-old buildings were not made for modern needs. Modern demands for public accessibility, communication and security just weren't on the minds of 19th century architects.  'It might have been an appropriate building for 1875, but, for the security concerns and needs of a county in 2010, it's just really lacking.' Gulley said he would like to think Franklin County offices will have a new administrative building in coming decades, and new construction has been considered, but there is no way the county could afford it.  Union County Courthouse in Jonesboro, much of which was built in 1857, is in last years as the chief administrative location for the county, as officials are moving forward with plans to construct a new courthouse and hope to be in the new building within the next five years.  Union County employees are looking forward to the new facilities with eager eyes, as the move will finally free the county of recurring repair costs and inconveniences caused by the 153-year-old structure.  'We're very excited," said Union County Board Chairman Randy Lambdin. "I have not talked to one employee that's not really, really excited about this project.'

Faulty heating and air conditioning systems, leaky roofs, limited storage space and dated electrical systems cause constant problems for the government. And then there's the safety and liability concerns of cramped corridors, asbestos and poor accessibility, especially in bad weather.  'There are problems with having a building that old and having sometimes 200 to 300 people going through that front door in a day,' Lambdin said. 'There's a lot of liability.' Despite the old courthouse's problems, the building is a landmark for Union County, he said. And while future plans for the building have yet to be determined, he would like to see it be preserved, if possible.

'I love history, and if there is a way, if some historical society can take it over, I would like to see it preserved,' he said.  Situations similar to Union County's can be found at more county courthouses in southernmost Illinois, as Johnson County Courthouse in Vienna still stands after 139 years of use and Pope County Courthouse in Golconda is in its 138th year of operation.

Ed Annable, president of Johnson County Historical Society, said the courthouse in Vienna, despite its structural shortcomings, is a landmark that will hopefully stand for many more years to come.  'It's always going to be there as a landmark,' Annable said. 'It's part of our heritage.'

Many of the Johnson County offices have been moved out of the courthouse into nearby buildings because of space limitations, and the courthouse is only used for court proceedings. The structure has been remodeled a few times in the past 100 years, but the courthouse still maintains its original architecture and appearance as built in 1871.

Annable said courthouses like Johnson County's were once the center for all community activities, saying in the 1800s and early 1900s, everybody went to the courthouse for everything.'All roads led directly to the courthouse,' he said.

Pope County Courthouse in Golconda was erected a year after Johnson County's, in 1872, and still retains the appearance it had 138 years ago. Necessary renovations have been made, as the second-floor courtroom has been remodeled and an elevator installed, but a few pieces of the past are still found in the building's original halls, including solid benches, large office counters and a spiraling staircase.

The courthouse has survived many natural disasters throughout its lifetime, including a catastrophic flood of the Ohio River in 1933, numerous earthquakes and a tornado in 2004. Some Southern Illinois courthouses don't have quite as many years behind them, and area residents can remember what it was like when the buildings were new.

Jackson County Courthouse in Murphysboro, a stone construction finished in 1929, still retains most of its original styling, including tile floors, marble stairs and a façade reminiscent of early 20th century urbanism. 'When I was a kid, we used to go to the courthouse for everything,' said Mary 'Mickey' Korando, a Jackson County Board member. 'I have always loved that courthouse.'"
Barker's note on the "intoxication" of local officials at the prospect of building a new courthouse was pitch perfect--and often the cause of real tears and wailing and gnashing as we see from the Maricopa County--and Sheriff Joe Arpaio's racketeering allegations against those local county representatives.  And often these building projects DO result in corruption scandals with contractors bribing public officials, or minority contractor manipulations.  It can get ugly.

But Barker's discussion of the romance of the old courthouse should not be lost on us, either.  And I talked about this early in this blawg.  I may even have related the following story, years ago I traveled to Chattanooga with my then law partner to obtain the sworn statement of a medical expert.  My partner wondered how we were going to find a court reporter locally and I laughed and said, "easy" we go to the county courthouse, and look for a local law office where we will get a referral.  My partner said, well smart guy how do we find the county courthouse?  I'm sure after all these years she laughs at herself for the question.

The County Courthouse in America is as a rule, the most promiment and beautiful structure at the County Seat.  Abutting all county courthouses are the offices of local lawyers, as well as the services provided to local lawyers.  These structures are enormously beautiful and mysterious, exploring one is a great joy--or at least was pre-2001.  Not too long ago I was in a very famous small town that was also the county seat.  It's courthouse was nearly 200 years old, I went in to use the restroom, but the building had no waste plumbing!  The building's  restroom facilities had been graphed-on to the exterior of the building in the 1930s and those facilities had a separate means of ingress and egress.

While I love the romance of those old buildings, the buildings do present security hazards that can not be underestimated.  Moving prisoners in and out of old courthouses is an arduous process, not to be underestimated.  Escape and attempted escape is always a problem, and screening for persons who would commit a violent act in the courthouse has been a problem historically, in fact I think this fact finds its way into legal thriller plot points.


  1. I have lost all faith in our justice system.

    I sold a house, my attorney, recommended a very short-term investment that would generate a better return. subsequently the attorney was suspended from practicing law for misappropriating escrow funds from two other clients.
    It has taken me 14 years to track his co-conspirator in England and get a judgment. Then that same attorney demanded tribute in order for his co-conspirator to return my funds.
    The Court sided with this attorney and ruled that I have to pay him tribute. Where the is justice for clients? Disciplinary Cmttee says that it is a fee issue beyond their jurisdiction. WTF!!!

  2. This is but part of the story. It is unbelievable to me that I cannot get justice. Lawyers are protected by the grey(suit) line of silence and protection.

    If you dare to want more details I will be pleased to comply.