The Three Courthouses of Washtenaw County

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, October 1990,
October 1990

Author: Grace Shackman

Conclusive proof that newer isn't always better

Just two weeks after he and Elisha Rumsey founded Ann Arbor in 1824, John Allen offered the state government free land for a courthouse. Though the site, at the corner of" "Huron" and "Main" on the partners' map, was uncleared wilderness, the state accepted, and designated Ann Arbor as the county seat. Allen had gambled (correctly, it turned out) that by giving up a small part of his 480-acre plot to get the county seat, he would be able to sell the remaining land for more. (The same ploy would later be used with similar success by the Ann Arbor Land Company to convince the University of Michigan to locate here.)

The courthouse was built a decade later by John Bryan, an early settler of Ypsilanti, at a cost of $5,350. It was a two-story building of brown-painted brick. On top was a cupola with a bell. The courtroom was upstairs, and the downstairs was rented to lawyers. Smaller one-story structures flanked the courthouse - one for the county clerk, the other for the register of deeds.

The courthouse square was surrounded by a white picket fence with a gate and turnstyle at each corner. There was a hitching rail on the corner of Huron and Fourth where people left their horses while they did business inside.

From the beginning, the courthouse and its surrounding square were the center of Ann Arbor's community life. Public events were held in the upstairs courtroom, and the grounds were used for larger gatherings. In 1860, summoned by the courthouse bell, citizens heard a city official standing on the courthouse steps read a telegram announcing that Fort Sumter had been fired on.

By the end of the Civil War it was obvious that Washtenaw County had outgrown its courthouse. Voters turned down the first request to fund a new one, in 1866. Put to the voters a second time in 1877, a funding measure passed, thanks partly to a fire in the sheriff's office that scared people: a similar fire in the courthouse, they realized, could have wiped out all the county's legal records.

The new courthouse, designed by G. W. Bunting, cost $88,000, and was far more ostentatious than the modest structure of 1834. Perched in the middle of the square, surrounded by a grassy lawn full of shade trees, the red brick building trimmed with limestone stood three stories high and was topped with a seven-story clock tower. There were smaller towers at each corner and a statue of Justice above each of the four entrances.

The inside of the courthouse was as splendid as the outside. According to Milo Ryan's autobiography View of a Universe, "all of the four doors entered into the same central lobby. From there grand staircases ascended between carved railings, of some dark wood deep-hued with stain and, probably, dust. On the main floor very tall doors opened into vast high-ceilinged offices, their walls lined with shelves of large books."

The new courthouse, like the original, was a center of community events. Memorial Day parades started there. Fourth of July programs were held on the grounds, and summer band concerts. Visiting celebrities, including William Jennings Bryan, spoke from the courthouse steps. When no events were scheduled, workers ate lunch there, children played around the war memorial on the lawn, and others exchanged gossip on warm summer evenings.

The second courthouse served the county for over seventy years. But like the first, it eventually became too small as Washtenaw County continued to grow. Micki Crawford, recently retired as chief deputy county clerk, remembers that when she began work for the county in 1950, the nineteenth-century courthouse was crowded, unsafe, and inefficient. "It may have been beautiful, but it was no joy to work in," she recalls. Clerk's forms were stored in the hallway. Records were kept under the stairs. Rats and mice were a problem. And most seriously, it was no longer felt to be safe from fire. The seven-story clock tower had been removed in 1948 because there were fears it might topple. The Main Street entrance was closed because the steps were in such bad shape.

County residents and officials offered various solutions. One was to build the new courthouse on the site of the County Infirmary (now County Farm Park), or at Vets Park. Most residents, though, wanted the courthouse to stay in the center of town, near the title companies and law offices. What really cinched the decision to put the new courthouse on the same downtown site was the discovery that under the terms of the original grant, if the courthouse land was sold for another use, the proceeds would go to John Allen's heirs, not to the county.

In the whole debate, no one seems to have mentioned the possibility of keeping the 1877 courthouse and renovating it. But in the age before preservation became a common cause, replacement seemed the only option. Mayor William Brown, speaking in favor of a new courthouse, demonstrated the assumptions of the era perfectly: "The present courthouse was built before the turn of the century. Need I say more?"

Again, it took two elections for the voters to approve the necessary funds. Voted down in 1950, the new courthouse was approved in 1955. The final plan, designed by architect Ralph Gerganoff of Ypsilanti, cleverly addressed the problems of parking and having to move twice, which had worried proponents of the other sites. The new courthouse would be built around three sides of the existing one, which would continue functioning until the new one was finished. Then the old would be torn down and that space used for parking.

The project worked as envisioned. Helen Rice, who was working at the courthouse at the time, remembers, "I could open my window and reach out about twelve inches and touch the new building." Much of the move was effected by employees handing materials out the old windows into the new.

Today, many lament the passing of the old courthouse, both for its architecture and for the sense of community fostered by the green around it. When the Downtown Landmarks Commission finished their work in 1988, they unanimously agreed to use Milt Kemnitz's portrait of the 1877 courthouse on the cover of their report. Commission chair Susan Wineberg explains, "It's the one that got away."


[Photo caption from original print edition]: The courthouses of 1834 (above) and 1877 (left). To avoid moving twice, the current courthouse (bottom) was built on the old one's lawn in the 1950's.