U.S. County Courthouses
January 15, 2008 4:15 PM   Subscribe

In the United States, most counties conduct local legal business in a centrally-located courthouse, which tends to be located in the county seat. Here is a flickr photo set of nearly all the county courthouses in the United States. From the [oldest] to the [most densly populated] to the [most populous], from the [ugly] to the [ornate], county courthouses present a remarkable variety of architectural styles. In some ways, these buildings seem to be the equivalent of European cathedrals -- they often represent the local community's largest and most expensive building, and they're designed with that in mind. Given our remarkable capacity for observer list keeping, I wonder why more people aren't courthouse spotters.
posted by one_bean (34 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
this is a wonderful FPP. i was impressed to see that if a county has an old and new courthouse they often show both.
posted by nadawi at 4:33 PM on January 15, 2008

The Flickr pool is missing Montrail County Courthouse, in Minot, North Dakota.*
I was jailed there for 3 days in 1997. I really would've liked to have another look at this place, that regularly haunts my dreams.

* But this is not surprising; who would ever go there, if they weren't driven down from the Canadian border post in the back of a State Trooper's car?
posted by Flashman at 4:38 PM on January 15, 2008


Actually, the King William County, Virginia, courthouse is the oldest active courthouse in the country. It was built in 1725.

The oldest still-standing courthouse, Courthouse of Queen Anne's County, was built in 1708 in Queenstown, Maryland.
posted by ericb at 4:40 PM on January 15, 2008

(Stanley, ND, actually)
posted by Flashman at 4:42 PM on January 15, 2008

posted by WolfDaddy at 4:48 PM on January 15, 2008

I love this! It seems that Beaux Arts and Romanesque dominate my home state.
posted by TrialByMedia at 5:19 PM on January 15, 2008

Wonderful post—thanks!


Yes indeed, I was married in it, and I can confidently say it's one of the most beautiful buildings I know. (Second wedding in the NYC Municipal Building; the second marriage has worked out a lot better, so there may be an inverse relationship between beauty of building and strength of marriage.)
posted by languagehat at 5:21 PM on January 15, 2008

I'd say it has more like half of all the court houses at best, versus nearly all. A neat project, though. I love to check out the local court houses and snap pictures of them when I get the chance. I'm geekly excited when I get onto wikipedia and see I'm the first to upload images of that county's court house.
posted by Atreides at 5:23 PM on January 15, 2008

In some ways, these buildings seem to be the equivalent of European cathedrals.

Great observation, one_bean. And why isn't there more of a cult around these buildings? Wandering around the small towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, you run into these things, one after another, and one is always struck by the dignity and sometimes pretension of these vaulting secular mosques.
posted by Faze at 5:23 PM on January 15, 2008

I live almost in the shadow of this one. Fun post, thanks.
posted by LarryC at 5:34 PM on January 15, 2008

Well, mine is kind of ugly. It's basically a box. I walk past it fairly often on lunch... but then again, Harrisburg makes up for it.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 5:46 PM on January 15, 2008

great post. i've been inside most of the courthouses in the san francisco bay area, each one has its own atmosphere; the majesty of san francisco's city hall, the fairy castle caprice of san rafael (frank lloyd wright), the stone-ugly but functional santa rosa...brings back memories.
posted by bruce at 5:56 PM on January 15, 2008

The Marin County one was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
posted by trip and a half at 6:00 PM on January 15, 2008

I spent all day in this building twice waiting to not get picked for jury duty. Impressive building but the picture doesn't show that it's sitting in the middle of a ghost town that dried up in the sixties and never came back. It's fairly clean and not scary or slummy but there's just nothing open in the entire business district of the town, Greensburg. It's very twilight zone-ish.
posted by octothorpe at 6:21 PM on January 15, 2008

Great post! I have a few photos in that group (he typed proudly).
posted by mmahaffie at 6:30 PM on January 15, 2008

Great post! I have a few photos in that group (he typed proudly).

Me too! But they're sealed because I was a juvenile. And they didn't get my best side.
posted by hal9k at 6:54 PM on January 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Marin Civic Center is a truly amazing building. Such a neat place. It's kind of buried into the hills around it, on both ends, so it's partially underground.

They have a library there that I used to really like -- it wasn't the usual stop, because it was further away, so the new selection of books was extra-cool.
posted by Malor at 7:10 PM on January 15, 2008

Was that Santa Barbara courthouse in one of the Beverly Hills Cop movies?
posted by JaredSeth at 7:12 PM on January 15, 2008

I've enjoyed this flickr group for awhile. There is a related page that breaks the group's photos down by state. Great post!
posted by marxchivist at 7:20 PM on January 15, 2008

Got a few pics in there myself.
posted by marxchivist at 7:23 PM on January 15, 2008

posted by LobsterMitten at 7:39 PM on January 15, 2008

Our county's courthouse (Monroe County, New York) is not pictured. I should get my boss to take a picture of it for me next time he's there.
posted by Lucinda at 7:58 PM on January 15, 2008

Such a cool post!
posted by amyms at 8:02 PM on January 15, 2008

Nice. Not going to complain about the left-out-ones, because I haven't done anything myself.

What is worth noting about these is that in many of the small towns, MOST of the indie businesses and taverns and long-established gathering places are on the four streets across from the courthouse.

When playing in rock/soul bands in the Seventies,in Indiana, most of the venues were right there, in the town square.

My uncle lived his whole life, on the East Coast, and was memorialized in a church, within a block of the town square. Eighty years in a 250-year old house.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a shopping mall anchored by a WalMart or a HomeDepot is not the same thing.

Not that we can turn back the hands of time...but the town center was nice, in its one or two hundred years of existence, in mid-sized American towns. (Of non-American towns, I am just a tourist.) And, in fact, it still lives manywheres in the USA.
posted by kozad at 8:07 PM on January 15, 2008

Evansville, IN, has a pretty excellent courthouse.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:37 PM on January 15, 2008

"The great importance of a courthouse to a town was that it brought people in from the surrounding countryside on legal or tax matters, and this in turn meant that the stores and offices and establishments designed to serve the out-of-town visitors were as near the courthouse as possible. If there was a weekly or monthly market, if there was a parade or a Fourth of July celebration, or if there was any election activity, the courthouse was likely to be the center of it. Customarily the best restaurant, the only hotel, the movie theatre, and the one department store were all on the surrounding streets. That was in the old days; now, I am afraid, the merchants and officials have deserted the local restaurant with its hot bread and ice tea and fried chicken and beans and cole slaw and pie for the fast-food establishments which have come to the edge of town. The hotel is either closed or the residence of so-called senior citizens. The barber shop has closed, the pool hall has closed, and the courthouse square is no longer prosperous." --J.B. Jackson, "The Nineteenth-Century Rural Landscape: The Courthouse, the Small College, the Mineral Springs, and the Country Store" (Collected in Landscape in Sight).
posted by one_bean at 8:37 PM on January 15, 2008

The Historic U.S. Armories pool is nice if you enjoy this sort of thing.
posted by marxchivist at 8:48 PM on January 15, 2008

Fascinating post. Thanks!
posted by damnthesehumanhands at 9:31 PM on January 15, 2008

I thought mine was one of a kind, but apparently the statue of Justice in Virginia City, Nevada who is not blindfolded is just a rarity.
posted by clearly at 11:10 PM on January 15, 2008

I wonder why more people aren't courthouse spotters.

Don't know about courthouse spotting, but there's a place online for county counters. For awhile I was in the Top 20, now I'm getting old and slow and my 2100+ counties visited puts me only in the Top 35. (I didn't start out counting coounties, actually, but got out my notebooks and maps and added them up about 15 years ago while trying to get through a Maine winter.)

Anyway, this is a terrific post. I've seen a lot of courthouses along the way, and always thought one of the nicest was in Cottonwood Falls, Chase County, Kansas.

The walnut spiral staircase inside is also quite nice.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:06 AM on January 16, 2008

They have a picture of the wrong building for my county's courthouse.
posted by brain cloud at 1:19 PM on January 16, 2008

Was that Santa Barbara courthouse in one of the Beverly Hills Cop movies?

JaredSeth, you're probably thinking of the Beverly Hills City Hall, which dates from the same era and is in similar Spanish Revival style. There are literally hundreds of similar civic or commercial structures in southern California. You could also be thinking of the Athenaeum at CalTech (which played the swank restaurant in the first film, and the gun club in the second).
posted by dhartung at 12:49 AM on January 17, 2008

Oh, there's none of mine yet. We used to have this fantastic Second Empire pile as a courthouse. There don't seem to be very many civic buildings from that era that survive anymore, so it would be a rarity today, although I don't know that it really was at the time. Mansard roofs are a maintenance problem and many of them have been torn off, if the building itself survives. It was the second courthouse on the same location.

It was replaced (third on the same location) by a humble, low-slung 1950s thing that reminds me of an old hospital. Fortunately, the courthouse was expanded about 6 years ago with a highly compatible yet still modern front wing that made it much more visually appealing, considering it can be seen from across the river. It's not a great building by any means, but it's not such a disappointment as it was.
posted by dhartung at 1:05 AM on January 17, 2008

Thanks, dhartung. I was beginning to think I wouldn't get an answer, and kept forgetting to google it.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:14 AM on January 17, 2008

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