June 28, 2018
Buchanan County Courthouse
Written by Rachel McCoy | Photos by Jessica Stewart and Patrick Evenson
DEFINITION: Extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or inspiration.
What happens on historic Council Hill in downtown St. Joseph … doesn’t stay in downtown St. Joseph. The stories are shared for decades, ranging from interesting architectural appreciation visits to riveting legal cases and tales of historic hauntings. (Hint: Think notorious outlaws.)
Built in 1873, the Buchanan County Courthouse, with its majestic white pointed dome, stands as an architectural icon during the day and casts a warm stately glow over downtown St. Joseph in the evening light. The building has been called one of the few remaining “true” historic courthouse buildings in the country, and it is easy to see this structure is built to last (ironically, it’s the third in a series of courthouses in Buchanan County). Positioned on Council (or Courthouse) Hill, the Neo-Classical dome and Corinthian columns are a memorable demonstration of Renaissance design. The overall plan of the building is the only “cruciform” Renaissance-styled courthouse in Missouri; meaning hallways extend outward in a cross pattern from a center point. In fact, it is second only in size and architectural scope within the state to the St. Louis City Courthouse.
On a daily basis, its doors are open for an interesting combination of business and personal use, with hundreds of guests passing through each year on guided bus tours from across the Midwest. Most guests that enter the Buchanan County Courthouse naturally look up in awe. The tall dome with its multi-paneled glass and tin panes is a true centerpiece of the building. The dome is a treasure all its own – but it’s positioned just over the top of the extensive ornamental floor tile work that shows the Missouri state seal. Framing the tile work is the impressive black stair rail with columns and gold accents, guiding guests and employees from one level to the next.
The first floor of the Buchanan County Courthouse is a mix of elegance, businesslike briskness and historic inspiration. In the basement, however, important matters center around Claudia’s Kitchen – featuring homemade meals that encourage conversation. In fact, the basement of the Buchanan County Courthouse has its own culinary history. In years past, it was the Courthouse Café – where booths of attorneys, employees, jury recruits and legal assistants enjoyed daily breakfast or lunch and each other’s company. The restaurant has changed names and cuisines over the years, but remains a casual, inviting place for genuine home cooking.
It is not just the food at Claudia’s that visitors and bus tours come to enjoy. The stories of cases past are compelling; none more famous than the 1882 trial of Bob and Charlie Ford for the murder of Jesse James. The bench the Ford brothers sat upon while they shared their side of the story and awaited the verdict remains to this day in one of the active courtrooms. This wooden icon sparks curiosity and a true connection to St. Joseph’s history. (Curious? The Ford brothers were tempted into killing Jesse James by a $10,000 reward. Upon James’ death, Mrs. James arranged a trial accusing the brothers of the murder of her husband and they were taken into custody. They were indicted on first-degree murder after pleading guilty. They were sentenced to be hanged – until a pardon came in by the governor. The Ford brothers were released and claimed their $10,000 reward for Jesse’s death, paid by the railroad companies who were fed up with the James’ gang business interruptions.)
Long-time employees at the Buchanan County Courthouse would say the building holds on to its past in other even more unique ways. Mysterious sounds and events have many convinced that some legal matters are never truly settled and that the halls may be haunted. Like many structures on the National Register of Historic Places (it was officially added in 1972), the combination of architectural “awe” and story-based intrigue continues to invite guests to walk in, to look up and maybe sit down to grab a bite at Claudia’s Kitchen.
It’s likely that early city founders and visionaries couldn’t have imagined a building of such magnitude as the modern-day courthouse. The city’s original courthouse was a log structure, built on a nearby hill in the late 1830s. It was lit by tall windows during the day and candles by night. Aside from civil matters, this early building was home for community meetings, used as a house of worship and even as an opera house. In the early 1840s, another more stately building was constructed on a block of land donated by city founder Joseph Robidoux. A two-story brick building, this second courthouse had a dome and a position to overlook the city – much like today’s Courthouse.
In 1871, with several area experts and architects deeming the brick two-story courthouse unsafe, plans were laid to build the current Buchanan County Courthouse and Jail for a cost $173,000, featuring a centerpiece domed rotunda measuring 145 feet from the ground. Completed in 1873, it was used for several purposes, housing lawyer offices, sleeping rooms, worship rooms and lecture areas for medical societies and a local musical society. Not surprisingly, one wing was used as a jail.
Just 15 years later, the 1885 courthouse fire – believed started by a heating stove ash – gutted the interior but left the columns. As an early display of uncommon tenacity, the “stubbornness” of insurance companies may have helped prevent complete demolition. Acting as preservation advocates before their time, the insurance agents would not declare the building a total loss, but rather a partial loss. A court agreement with the insurers helped rebuild the courthouse to its original state, and the National Register report indicates that few alterations have been made to the structure since its renovation.
The next time you pass by downtown St. Joseph or the river area, look up to notice the Buchanan County Courthouse standing strong, a mix of business and beauty on Courthouse Hill. And here’s hoping its hilltop position, unique cross-shaped architecture, stately columns and lantern-topped rotunda speak their own story to you.