By law, every county in the United States has been required to construct a "convenient building for holding courts."
But early on in American history, county courthouses became much more than that. They became symbols of local government, of democracy in action, of civic pride. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. noted, "public buildings often accurately reflect the beliefs, priorities and aspirations of a people … For much of our history, the courthouse has served not just as a local center of the law and government, but as a meeting ground, cultural hub and social gathering place."
When it came time to build its courthouses, Utah was no different than any other state in wanting to create showpieces that reflected local values.
"County courthouses are among the royalty of Utah architecture," wrote Roger Roper in a 1993 article in the Utah Historical Quarterly. "Only the State Capitol, major religious buildings, a few collegiate structures and a handful of other buildings rival or overshadow them in scale, visibility and architectural distinction."
Although there were never any specific guidelines laid down for courthouse construction, "there was apparently a basic understanding of what constituted an appropriate design and setting, especially in the 19th century, when most of Utah's first courthouses were built," writes Roper.
For one thing, courthouses were centrally located within the county seat, usually near a principal intersection and often next to major religious or educational buildings. They were often allowed to take up an entire city block and were usually set back a good distance from the street. "This drew attention to the building and created an atmosphere of distinction and respect for the activities of county government carried on within," wrote Roper.
Over the years, some of Utah's original county courthouses have been lost — replaced by more functional, if less distinct, buildings. But Utah still has a rich legacy of county courthouses, says Kirk Huffaker, executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation. Some 16 historic courthouse buildings remain, and 11 of them are still in use as courts or for other county offices.
"Courthouses have a local connection that is very important," says Huffaker. "What happens in these buildings is where people see the most effect of local government. Not only do they offer innumerable services, they are repositories of birth, death, marriage, real estate records — most of the significant transactions of life. Many have seen tragic court cases and famous marriages."
Equally important, he says, as a whole, they represent almost every era of architecture in Utah.
"When people started building city halls and courthouses and other public buildings, a lot of time and effort went into what kind of building they wanted," says Alysa Revell, chairman of the Farmington Preservation Commission, which is currently concerned with preserving the Davis County Courthouse. "They wanted a building representative of democracy. These buildings were a really important part of life, and if we remove them, we remove an important part of civic history."
After extensive study of the issue, she says, "it looks like, at the very least, we are going to be able to preserve the oldest part of the building, if not the whole thing. But things are moving slowly."
The Cache County Courthouse is another one that has recently undergone extensive restoration and renovation.
"I think courthouses have become more valued," says Wilson Martin, Utah State Historic Preservation Officer. "As with all historic buildings, people are more aware of the embodied value, the embodied energy they have."
But, he adds, the economy has played a big role. "Courthouses were usually very well built, especially for their period. Typical home construction of that era — other than the mansions — involved small masonry or small wood-frame structures made of indigenous materials. But civic buildings of all varieties were symbols of the community and were built to a higher standard."
It is possible, he says, to add elevators, HVAC systems, seismic retrofitting, appropriate additions and still be more cost-effective than starting over. Plus, he adds, there is an incredible preservation industry filled with craftsmen who can do that kind of work.
"It's possible to have our cake and eat it, too — to save these beautiful reminders of the past in a way that makes economic sense," he says.Comment on this story
What has happened in the field of preservation in the past couple of decades is extraordinary, he says. "We now have a convergence of technology, skills, craftsman and the desire to keep the buildings of the past; we have a convergence of passion and reality."
Buildings of the past are tangible reminders of who we are and where we came from, and that's particularly true of our courthouses, he says. "They are such symbols of community and independence and local government."