June 28, 2018
Buchanan County Courthouse
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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