Monday, June 29, 2009

Visiting County Courthouses

Iowa’s county courthouses span the history of the state of Iowa. Two courthouses were built prior to Iowa’s statehood, and one courthouse was completed in 2008. Over one third of the courthouses still serving today were constructed prior to 1900.

Courthouses were designed to reflect the importance of government in the lives of citizens. Early courthouses, small log structures or frame buildings, were replaced with larger stone or brick courthouses as soon as the county could afford it. Only two courthouses date back to Iowa’s statehood, other counties have replaced their courthouses due to fire, weather, poor construction, or increasing needs of a growing population.

(Madison County Courthouse: A judge carved the walnut staircase railing)

A visit inside the courthouse tells more of the story of the county, the architect, and the time during which the courthouse was built. Although this author has just begun the journey to visit inside the courthouse, it is a delightful experience indeed!

(Page County Courthouse: beautiful doorknobs and hinges)

Be sure to contact the courthouse before your visit. Most of Iowa’s counties have a website with contact information for elected officials. Typically the auditor responded to my inquiries for permission for photography and arranged for assistance with information and/or tour guide. The clerk of court will let you know when the courtroom is available – and usually the courtroom is the most elaborate room.

(Marion County Courthouse: The courtroom has been remodeled, but the original carved bar and bench remain. The carving originally behind the judge's bench has a new place of honor outside the courtroom door.)

Do a bit of homework – the date of construction, architect, and major construction materials can be located with a bit of research: see My Iowa Genealogy or Internet Archive (search for Iowa County) for information dating back to the 1800’s.

(Keokuk County Courthouse: Original Gaslights have been converted to electricity)

That will allow you to refine your journey. Things this author looked for: original details (gas lights, fireplaces, doorknobs and hinges) detailed work (wrought iron, carved wood and stone, statues), features not apparent to the public (staircase from clerk’s office to the judge’s chamber, dumbwaiters, back door to jail area), things that tell the courthouse’s history (art, fire marks, changes for safety or modernization) and other details that were not available in research, such as clock manufacturer.

(Montgomery County Courthouse: Graffiti inside clocktower)

Visit some courthouses! You will meet wonderful hardworking public servants who are proud of their courthouses. You will be amazed at the construction of older courthouses, and how the design still serves the county today. You can see the influence of each decade in the art and architecture of courthouses through the years from 1840 to today.

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