Dr. Jay M. Price Centennial Presentation

The Meaning of the Courthouse

Places of law have always been more than that. In Roman times, the basilica, the legal building of the times, got adapted into the basic form for the Christian church. North Americans have a long history of courthouses. In Spanish America, the Cabildo, or city hall, was an important fixture of Spanish cities. In British America, the courthouse was a major feature, especially in parts of the rural south. The courthouse was more than the site for trials, which were themselves public spectacles (no need to watch courtroom drama on television when you could see it in real life).

Continued History

Courthouses, however were also social centers, places of gatherings, celebrations, militia drills, and community events. In a place like the United States where law is local and we often raise up judges and legal officials from our own ranks, there is a long tradition of courthouses being, somehow, ours.

With the settlement of the west, the courthouse took on an even greater role as not just a place of jurisprudence, but of local government, the seat of county administration. Calling this a courthouse is, in some ways, a misnomer, naming a building after only one of its functions. It is to the county what the capitol building is to a state or national government.

Europeans and others marvel at our decentralized political system, but not quite sure they get the purpose. They ask, "You have a capitol building in Washington. Why do you need 50 more?". Even places with federal systems of government don't always relate to an additional layer of counties. Canada, for example, does not have counties as subunits of the provinces. Mexican states have counties, but these are more collections of municipalities, the primary unit of local government. Nor is there a consistent pattern in regards to local government in the United States. The south has a strong tradition of countries, but in New England the town is the main unit. In parts of the upper Midwest, such as Michigan, the township is an important and powerful body. The county varies in role, number, and size depending on the state. The decentralized nature of Kansas has resulted in 105 counties. Arizona, which is larger in area than Kansas, functions just fine with only 14 counties.

Midwestern Culture

The county itself has a unique status in Midwestern life. In part, this is because of the rural nature of the place, and in many ways the Midwestern county and the southern county share important roles in their respective regions. In the Midwest, the county is no mere administrative and judicial unit. It is a cornerstone of local identity. Kansas identity is county based. Those two-letter county codes on our license plates are very important, indeed. I remember eating lunch with a friend in southeastern Kansas who, walking into the restaurant, remarked that "Hmmm. That car is from three counties over. I wonder what they're doing here." People don't say that about representative districts, even though state and federal districts exist precisely for the purposes of representation. As the British writer James Bryce mused in the 1880's, "It is noteworthy that the Americans, who are supposed to be especially fond of representative assemblies, have made little use of representation in their local government.". Perhaps we would love districts more if we named them rather than numbered them and gave them tangible symbols and distinct senses of identity compared to their neighbors. Somehow, the county is more basic, more tangible, more a part of who we are.

That may be why determining which city got to be the seat of the county courthouse prompted intense rivalries, as the citizens of both Anthony and Harper still remember. Although the goal was to have a county seat within easy riding distance from all corners of the county, it did not always work out that way. Moreover, the county seat status was a mark of survival in Kansas in the 1800's. To be the county seat was to mark your community, and by extension your fortunes, as permanent. In that great reality TV show called The Nineteenth Century West, countless battles, some involving bloodshed and many involving corruption or at least bombastic editorials, raged over who was the rightful custodian of the courthouse. It was fitting that there were also two great courthouse builders of the 1800's in Kansas, James Holland and George Washburn, although it is still unclear whether they were more colleagues or rivals.

Once a location was set, either willingly or begrudgingly, the next task was to construct a building grand enough and prominent enough to represent the pride of the county. Except for small immigrant settlements, towns in Kansas often did not have a single dominant church. Instead, there was a host of different denominations, each with their own structures. Commercial streets were made up of individual businesses and the well to do each built their own impressive homes as resources allowed. Even school systems, divided up among a host of districts, resulted in scores of buildings, large and small, dotting the landscape. Railroad stations were the products of the companies that ran their lines through them, and elevators arose because of the efforts of individuals, companies, and coops. Only the courthouse was the single, common structure for the whole citizenry of the country. It was the one building that could only be one building. It made sense to pour one's aspirations into as great an edifice as possible.

Courthouse Traditions

At a time when transacting official business could be an all-day affair, courthouses tended to be large and spacious. Following a practice that went at least back to Renaissance times, a visitor went up a flight of stairs from the ground to the main floor of the building, where the main offices were. These were days before handicapped accessibility and, sometimes, it seemed as if architects were paid by the stair. Yet, the Victorian world that George Washburn represented was one that loved elaborate and imposing entryways. One expected to find an ornate lobby or foyer when arriving into a building, whether a home, a hotel, a railroad station, or a courthouse. Contrast this with today's government buildings when lobbies are plain rooms with just enough space for electronic scanning equipment that you try to get through with as little hassle as possible. There were men's and women's restrooms and parlors where one could wait while business was taking place. If the first floor was for county's administrative side, usually, the second was for its judicial role. The centerpiece of the courthouse was the courtroom itself. Remember that a court procedure is at its heart a ritual drama. There are lots of parallels between houses of worship and the interiors of courtrooms. As with a house a worship, there are seats for attendees, then spaces for the major participants, culminating in the sacred precinct where the judge's bench sat, separated from the common space by an open space and a heavy railing.

Washburn's courthouse in Anthony, like his other courthouses in places like El Dorado, Yates Center, and Ottawa, was a product of its era. It emerged at a time when the courthouse was at the supreme symbol of county and local government, the heyday of the agricultural Elysium of small town America. Its deep brick and stone implies permanence. The Romanesque arches recall the great cathedrals of Europe, suggesting that these structures are for the American Midwest what Chartres and Westminster Abbey were for Europe. They were the points of pride for their communities. Dating from 1908, this courthouse is towards the end of the Romanesque style's prominence. A few years later, classical revival would sweep the state in the 1910's, followed by a passion for Art Deco public buildings in the 1920's and 1930's.

Buildings are artifacts of time and place, as is their story after being built. In his book, "How Buildings Learn", Stewart Brand suggests we need to remember that people adapt and reuse buildings, that such a process is normal, and that the successful design is one that changes with the times. Sometimes, the change is as simple, relatively, as installing electricity or running water or wireless internet connection. Sometimes, however, changing uses require more substantial changes, if not abandonment of the existing structure. Buildings that are preserved tell us something about our values, as do buildings that are left to decay. We fix up what we value. We let fall apart things that are less worthy.


Sometimes, a change in attitude results in a new building altogether. Several great Washburn courthouses are gone, replaced by a modern building. It is tempting to decry this loss. Yet, we need to remember that 1950's modern was appropriate for its time and place and, as much as we may prefer the elegance of the Romanesque Revival, 1950s ultramodern has just as much a right to be a part of our landscape.

We live in the changing times. We build public buildings for efficiency of use, not to make a statement to the outside world. We want and demand buildings with ample parking, not impressive foyers. Interiors are made of near prefabricated parts and the only decorations on the walls tend to be photographs of the elected officials in the office at the time. Inside and out, our public buildings are utilitarian to the core, with features derived not from cathedrals or palaces but the office building.

Today, with the shifts in population towards larger cities and the decline of small towns, we are starting to discuss whether counties need to be combined or at least have combined services. The decentralized, county-based local government that shaped the construction of this building seems to be a different planet from our world where government offices display portraits of President Bush and, now, President Obama. In a world where forms are downloaded PDFs, where we take care of business by sending an e-mail to the county clerk, where security procedures now guide the design of judicial spaces, and social events are coordinated through MySpace and Facebook, one may wonder about how useful a big masonry structure is to our everyday lives.

Returning to Tradition

Perhaps this is when we need to turn back to one of the original uses of the courthouse, a public gathering space. We live in a hyper-privatized world where we may or may not know our next door neighbor and don't sit out on the front porch to watch people pass. We travel alone in our cars and our best friend is someone in another state we occasionally send text messages to. Perhaps it is precisely the public space that a courthouse represents that is it's greatest current benefit to us. We have fewer and fewer public spaces. The courthouse square is one of the handful left. It is the place where all of us, resident and visitor alike, can approach, connect with one another, and simply be. Grain elevators are likened to cathedrals because of their towering spire-like qualities. I can see that analogy, but don't quite buy it. Cathedrals were more than spires. They were gathering places, testimonies in stone and glass to the community and its ideals. They were the places to visit and reflect, whether if passing by or stopping in. It is hard to do that while dodging grain trucks and railcars around an elevator. The courthouse, however, does allow us, the people, to approach and interact. It is our space and so, I now welcome you back to your cathedral.

Dr. Jay M. Price, November 2008