Left Justified: Remember the old courthouse?

Winnebago County once had the most beautiful antebellum courthouse in the state of Illinois, if not the Midwest. That was until the County Board voted to tear it down to build the ugliest county courthouse in the world (in my humble opinion).

I collect old Rockford postcards, and was surprised to find pictures of a “French Venetian” structure with an American treatment in the middle of Rockford. This courthouse was considered a model of architectural beauty for its day. It was completed in 1878, and originally was supposed to cost a mere $104,000; the ultimate price tag was more than $210,000. The 30-foot x 30-foot dome rose more than 120 feet above the courthouse.

The cornerstone was laid amid great festivities on June 24, 1876. This was the centennial celebration of the United States, and it tied into all the national parties. The courthouse was built to surpass Stephenson County’s in size and elegance. Freeport’s edifice had been completed in 1873. “Shall Rockford take a back seat to Freeport?” demanded the local newspapers. There was intense rivalry for size and beauty among the county governments, and Rockford wanted to match Freeport “stone by stone.” Now we are lucky if the institutional builders even consider aesthetics (i.e., “a taste for the beautiful”).

May 11, 1877, while under construction, the courthouse dome collapsed. The building was in ruins, most of the interior being crushed, killing nine workmen and injuring many others. They quickly regrouped and began again. That is probably why the price tag was twice as much as originally hoped. By 1916, the county added a building.

There was much debate in the 1960s when Winnebago County officials proposed tearing it down. A referendum to raise money for the “new courthouse” was defeated, but the Winnebago County Board voted to go ahead anyway. Sound familiar?

While taking one of the River District’s wonderful little Walkabout downtown tours, I met a couple who told me they’d witnessed the initial attempts at tearing down the old courthouse. It seemed to stymie the tools brought to bear on the structure. It was so well built that they had to bring in even bigger equipment to finally demolish it.

I don’t know who made the decision to tear down the old Victorian courthouse and build the new, modern box-style office building. The committee that conspired were, I’m sure, modern-looking citizens concerned about a better building for the county workers. But why should the good (an architecturally beautiful structure) be thrown out with the bad (cramped quarters)?

As we enter a new year, let us look around for the old we wish to keep.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Jan. 3-9, 2007, issue

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