Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Still 'Queen of the Courthouse Square' in Traverse City

The contractor watches an old movie, ''Anatomy of a Murder,'' not to see whodunit or to admire the acting talents of Jimmy Stewart, but to catch every architectural detail of the historic Marquette County Courthouse in Michigan's rugged Upper Peninsula, where many of the movie scenes were shot.

The 1959 film, based on the novel of the same name by local jurist-author John Voelker (his pen name, Robert Traver), affords helpful glimpses of this imposing turn-of-the-century courthouse. It is still in use and still the center of much real-life day-to-day drama for the people who live along the wilderness shores of Lake Superior.

About these ads

Exterior views show the structure in Marquette is still much as it was when it was built in 1902-04, with raindrop sandstone from nearby quarries and Portage Entry redstone from the copper country of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Interior views highlight handsome imported marble and 11- to 13-foot high Victorian-era ceilings. A stained-glass dome throws pools of colored light around the main courtroom; a copper dome shields the glass from the weather.

Such details are important to Jack Erickson, vice-president of Tezak Company of Traverse City, Mich., because his construction firm has embarked on a full-scale restoration that will return the worn and outmoded structure to its original grandeur and enhance its usefulness.

''I see a trend toward saving landmark buildings like this instead of demolishing them and constructing new ones,'' Mr. Erickson says. ''This is our second courthouse restoration - the first was the Grand Traverse County courthouse - and I'm sure the success of that project had a lot to do with our getting this contract.''

The Grand Traverse restoration has become a model of sorts for many surrounding communities which find themselves in a ''save it or wreck it'' quandary about their once-elegant buildings which have fallen on hard times. Delegations come in droves to inspect what has been done there.

What they find is a splendid, like-new example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture (named for H.H. Richardson, prominent New York architect of that era). It dominates the center of Traverse City, Mich., from a grassy knoll on an acre of ground, its historic importance emphasized with such classic touches as a Civil War monument and a 9,800-pound Parrott cannon on the lawn.

When this courthouse was built in 1899-1900, the fortresslike red-brick facility was dubbed the ''Queen of Courthouse Square.'' Its turrets, arches, spires, and magnificent tower clock looked down on torchlight rallies and patriotic parades. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan had demonstrated his silver-tongued oratory at the site (then called Jail Hill). In 1914 a convention of Michigan suffragettes toured the building.

About these ads

''I have fond boyhood memories of the Grand Traverse courthouse,'' says Erickson. ''My grandfather was an undersheriff, my grandmother was a jail matron , and my mother worked at the license bureau in the basement. I used to play on the lawn. I rode on the dumbwaiter, which was used to bring food to the prisoners. My grandfather took me up to see the huge gears of the Century Tower Clock with its eight-foot compensating pendulum and 137-pound ball. The tower bell weighs 1,500 pounds.''

But in modern times the building became shabby and overcrowded. A new jail was built nearby, but the main structure slid into a sooty, scarred, forlorn-looking relic. When decorations toppled from its turrets, they were not replaced. One arched doorway was bricked up and the massive oak doors on another were replaced with plain storm glass. What's more, old wiring and lack of modern heating and plumbing made it uncomfortable and unsafe for workers and the public alike.

The mood was: ''Tear it down.'' But there were those with a love of history and architecture who said: ''No.'' In November 1968 the building was placed on the Michigan Register of Historic Places. And in 1975, after a turbulent ''Save the Courthouse'' campaign led by the Grand Traverse Historical Society, voters advised the county they wanted the building preserved, though they did not indicate for what purpose.

Before deciding how to carry out this mandate, K. Ross Childs, county coordinator, and Earl Glaesmer, then-chairman of the county board of commisssioners, attended a national conference on the preservation of old county courthouses. Their glowing reports convinced the commissioners to opt for restoring the building and utilizing it solely for the courts.

A two-phase plan was implemented. First, a new city-county office building was constructed on the southeast portion of Courthouse Square. This relieved the overcrowding by providing new space for the county clerk, treasurer, and many bureaus. Secondly, the courts were given temporary housing and the old courthouse was gutted so restoration could begin.

''We studied old drawings and photographs,'' Mr. Childs recalls. ''A lot of little spires were broken and we had them rebuilt from photos and put into place. All the brass letter-slots and hardware was removed and sent to Chicago to be replated. All the beautiful oak woodwork, railings, and furniture was taken out piece by piece, cataloged, refinished, and put back. Some had been painted and covered with plastic. One counter took 40 hours to restore. Now, you couldn't find better woodwork anywhere - and it's priceless.''

To provide flexibility for large or small trials, all furnishings in the main courtroom were designed to be free-standing except for the judge's bench and platform. Interior walls and ceilings throughout were given a clean, spacious look which accents the wooden doors and their ornate wooden frames.

All wiring and plumbing were replaced to bring the building up to the building code, and modern restrooms were installed on each of three floors. New heating and air-conditioning units were put in, along with a new elevator, soundproofing, fire and smoke detectors, ramps to make the building barrier free , new carpeting throughout, and special lighting.

The brick and stone exterior walls (Akron Impervious pressed brick with hemlock windows, and Portage Entry redstone steps) were remortared, the joints scraped and tuckpointed, and surfaces cleaned of grime. New windows, storm windows, and weather-stripping were installed; sheet metal cornices and roof ornaments restored; wood trim scraped, painted, and sealed; and new oak entry doors and frames were built patterned on the originals.

Room was found for a new law library, and attic space was converted into a spacious meeting room.Childs says it ''retains a certain dignity which old courthouses had, and which some of the newer buildings lack. We've had a very positive reaction from the people who use it day to day - judges, attorneys, the public, even the local bar association which originally opposed the idea.''

Jack Erickson recalls one of the more harrowing moments during the renovation. ''To bring a heating unit to the attic, we used a 50-ton crane and put a cable down through a hole in the roof. We brought the unit up through a stairway shaft with only three inches clearance all around.''

There was skepticism at the beginning of the project, but ''it really turned around when the oak woodwork went on,'' Erickson says. ''You could see the pride the construction crew took in their work. Even today, they bring people through the building and point out what part they had a hand in restoring.''

The $1.75 million restoration budget included $1.25 million from federal revenue-sharing funds and a $500,000 bond issue. The project was completed at $ 50,000 under budget, at a cost of $49 per square foot, which Childs says compares favorably with the cost of new building construction.

Two Chicago architectural firms did the planning - Historic Resources, and Architects International-Chicago. The project was completed on schedule in June 1981, in just over two years. A rededication ceremony, held on July 4 of that year, was repeated this year, a tradition many hope to continue.

''We not only saved a landmark,'' Childs explains, ''but we kept the hub of activity from governmental offices in the downtown area of the city. A new building would have meant moving to the outskirts of town.''

The restoration inspired some downtown businesses to follow suit. The Traverse City Opera House above some Front Street stores was salvaged. The Tezak Company restored the old Traverse City Cherry Growers plant and in the near future plans to restore the Traverse City Iron Works building.

In Marquette, Mich., the courthouse restoration now under way includes repair of the interior stained glass dome and replacement of the exterior copper dome. The entire building is getting a cleaning and refurbishing with new heating and a new mechanical plant to make it more functional.

Marquette architect Lincoln Poley was assisted in his research by the Marquette County Historical Society and historical consultant Henry Chambers of Medina, Ohio. The $2.4 million project is funded with some federal money and dollars saved by the county over the years for this purpose.

''The Marquette County board members visited the Grand Traverse courthouse before awarding us the construction bid,'' says Erickson. ''We were hired for our experience. Another important consideration is that we are using local labor for 85 percent of the work. That's a help in this depressed area where unemployment is 25 percent.''

It is ''an amazing buliding,'' he adds, ''and we hope to have it ready by spring. It's exciting to work on old buildings and know you are helping people preserve a part of their heritage.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.