“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Henrico County Courthouse

The second public building to be constructed in Richmond showed the growing influence of the town in the region. It followed the establishment of the church in the vicinity by nearly thirty years and the construction of the Upper Church on Richmond Hill by less than a decade. The new seat of regional government appears to have been planned to occupy a conventional lot. A long-established understanding of the placement of civic architecture, however, led to its being placed in a dominating position in the center of the adjacent cross street, where, by its unique axial placement (seen in the adjacent 1809 map detail), it could become identified with the grid that ordered the city rather than ruled by it. With the replacement of the colonial building by a temple-form courthouse on the same site in 1825, Richmond joined other Virginia county seats that were centered around a Jeffersonian temple-form "hall of justice." 

Richmond was selected as the new seat of Henrico County in 1750. The public land provided for the courthouse was the half-acre lot 18 on the southwest corner of E and 6th street, what are now Main and Twenty-second streets near the middle of the town. The trustees must have realized that a corner site was not sufficiently significant a location, so they aligned the building with the center of Sixth (now Twenty-second) Street where, as the principal public building, it was distinguished from ordinary buildings not only by its substantial materials and form, but by its axial setting. The building was prepared for use by 1752, when the court made the move from Varina to Richmond. Although there is no description of the courthouse, the drawing of the prison bounds in the 1780s shows it in the center of the street and the jail located on the adjacent on the public lot. In order to fit within the street the building was longer than it was wide.

Young's Map (1809, above) and Bates Map of Richmond (1835, below) showing the successive
 1750 and 1825 Henrico County courthouses in the center of 22nd St. and the Henrico County Jail
 on the original public lot to the west. St. John's Church is seen at the top center of the lower map.

Building a Courthouse in 1750

According to Carl Lounsbury, the pre-Revolutionary courthouse was often a small and undistinguished building. However, as the eighteenth century progressed, members of the principal county families began to see the courthouse and the church as arenas for architectural expression. As at the Upper Church of Henrico Parish (St. John's Church), local materials and regional building technology could be pressed into the service of a more ambitious program to remake the public face of colonial government. This remaking was not only an effort of the educated gentry, but was funded, not without contention, by the freeholders, who took pride in an increasingly substantial and durable architectural program “in which building matched public expectations” and corresponded with hierarchical political arrangements [Lounsbury 85-89].

While there was never a break with traditional building practices, the increasing wealth of the colony, its more complex political structure, and the “cosmopolitan perspective” of the ruling gentry class “prompted the introduction of academic architectural elements from outside the regional building traditions” [Lounsbury]. Public building were part of the same tradition as private homes, and shared many similar details, but public buildings were distinguished in Virginia by their large scale and by the widespread employment of the arch in the form of large “compass-headed” doors and windows, as in the Upper Church at Richmond.

Henrico County was established in 1619 as one of four cities or boroughs making up the colony. Originally the parishes administered most county-level functions, including moral discipline and road maintenance. As part of an extension of government out from Jamestown eight shires, including Henrico, were to hold monthly commissioners’ courts to settle legal issues. Courts met in houses or taverns. In 1645, the county courts were authorized to hear all cases, both criminal and civil. By 1662, the courts were made up of justices of the peace. A frame courthouse was built in Henrico in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1680, the assembly established a town in the place “where the court house is” across the river from the former site of the town of Henrico, ten miles below Richmond. The site, since at least 1635, of the parish's glebe farm which housed and supported the minster, the tiny settlement was called Varina, after a type of Spanish tobacco. The act of the assembly in 1680 ordained that the village “where the courthouse is” was to be a shipping, trade, and crafts center. Like much of the town-making attempted by the colonial government, little came of the act. The small earthfast frame courthouse stood near a brick glebe house, residence of the rector of Henrico Parish. This was described as standing on blocks in 1688, when it was repaired.

The Form of a Courthouse

The 1750 Chesterfield County Courthouse that used the early eighteenth-century 
Henrico Courthouse as its model. 

Henrico County moved like other Virginia counties to improve the court's setting at Varina. In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, the justices built a new, more substantial courthouse. The structure was of brick, but there is no first-hand record of its appearance or form. Richmond was made the county seat in 1750 because, with the creation of Chesterfield County out of the half of Henrico located below the James River, Varina was no longer centrally or conveniently located. In keeping with the imitative nature of colonial building practices, the Chesterfield County court in 1750 used the old Henrico Courthouse as their model for their courthouse. The new structure was to be built “of the same dimensions and material,” except that it was to have a plank floor. Photographs of the Chesterfield Courthouse give a clue as to the form of its Henrico predecessor. They show it to have been a rectangular building with five bays on the front, including a central door, segmentally arched windows, a modillion cornice, and glazed-header Flemish bond walls.

The new Henrico County Courthouse of 1825 from a Virginia Mutual Assurance policy, 1825.

The old Henrico County courthouse was abandoned at the same time that it was chosen as the model for new seat of Chesterfield County’s government. It is likely that, if the new Henrico Courthouse in Richmond was similarly modeled on its predecessor, its location in the street would have caused its builders to vary its design by putting its main entrance in the north gable end. The site made a building that was wider than it was long impractical. In its urban context and with the comparative wealth of the county, the 1750 building was probably at least as finely made as most other mid-eighteenth-century courthouse in the vicinity.

We do not know what the 1750 courthouse looked like, but its successor, built in 1825, was a brick building 70 feet long and 40 feet wide, similar to these local eighteenth-century prototypes. The new building was of a single story and was fronted by a pedimented Doric portico. Entry doors in each of the outer bays flanked a large central window, a design unique among Virginia courthouses. The building was planned by Samuel Sublett and constructed by a group including William C. Allen and William Street [Charles Brownell, Jeffersonian Courthouse in Virginia, 1810-1850. National Historic Landmark Thematic Nomination Project, 2006]. 

The courthouse of 1825 was placed in the same axial location as its predecessor. The new building incorporated the new temple form assumed by Virginia courthouses, which, as Charles Brownell has shown, was generated by Jefferson's project for a temple-form "hall of justice" across Virginia's counties [Brownell, 2006]. It is formally related to the nearby Virginia Capitol, visible to the west on Shockoe Hill. There its impressive form and position punctuated the western end of an axial route that connected the state government at the Capitol on Shockoe Hill with county government in the center of the old section of town in on the river. The importance of this linkage is indicated by the route prescribed for important civic parades during the antebellum era. These carefully ordered public displays of civic unity began at the courthouse and processed to an end point at the Capitol.

Parades along the route include one for Lafayette's visit in 1824, another in 1831 for the funeral of President Monroe, and the procession in 1832 to celebrate the 100th birthday of George Washington, beginning at the "new courthouse" along E Street to 5th and from 5th to H and along that to the First Baptist Church at the east end of Broad Street. The funeral procession for Jefferson in 1826, which also followed the route from courthouse to capitol, showed the city and state hierarchically arrayed in its full integrity: Governor, Council, Officers of state, officers and soldiers of the Revolution and Society of Cincinnati, clergy and relatives of the deceased, Federal and State Committee of Arrangements, the mayor and corporate authorities of Richmond, citizens of Richmond, and the military [W. A. Christian, 1914].

The 1842 Henrico County Courthouse in the 1850s, relocated to the public square on the corner.

When Richmond became a city in 1782, the city's "common hall" continued to work closely with the county. The county retained jurisdiction over overseers of the poor, over criminal cases, and over the city's tobacco warehouses, while the city was authorized to organize a militia and to provide judicial oversight for slaves that lived within its limits. In 1822 the county court's session time was extended due to the increase in case load as the city grew. Eventually, with the passage of the Underwood Constitution in 1869, the city no longer had any direct political connection to the county. The anomalous position of the county government in an independent civil unit undoubtedly reduced the status of the structure as a civic building. The courthouse had rebuilt on the public land on the corner lot in the 1842 by Isaac Goddin, presumably as a result of increased commercial activity and traffic along the nearby City Dock made opening up the street seem desirable. The county appears to have reused the three-bay Doric portico, but the new building was two stories in height and featured a central entry.

Damaged by fire in 1865, the courthouse of 1842 was replaced by a new or rebuilt structure in 1867 by William H. Yeatman [Brownell, 2006]. This courthouse served the county until it was replaced in 1896. Repair of the old building was determined to be unfeasible. Richmond architect Carl Ruehrmund, who studied architecture and civil engineering at the Royal Academy in Berlin, provided the design for the building that still occupies the site. It contrasted sharply with the trim classicism of the series of buildings it replaced [Peters, Virginia's Historic Courthouses, 1995]. Not until the 1970s did the county government relocate out of the city, after which the Victorian courthouse remained empty for many years.
The former Henrico County Courthouse of 1893,
located on the original corner public square on Main Street.

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