The Johnson County Courthouse

Courthouse Front

The present building - begun in 1899 and completed in 1901 - is Johnson County’s fourth courthouse. The first was a 2 story log cabin built in 1838 in the town of Napoleon, two miles south of Iowa City, off of Sand Road. Napoleon, was located in a flood plain, however, and the second courthouse was built on the hills north of Napoleon in the area that became Iowa City. Completed in 1842, this second wooden courthouse on the southeast corner of Harrison and Clinton Streets (presently a county parking lot leased from the School Board), was known as the "Old Smokehouse" because its chimneys never worked properly. It caught fire and burned to the ground on election night in 1856, when officials were counting votes. The third courthouse was built of brick and finished in 1857. It was declared unsafe in 1899. This two story building stood exactly where the present courthouse stands, and where the old jail stood behind the courthouse, on the northwest corner).

Courthouse EnteranceThe courthouse was among the last of 7 buildings designed between 1894 and 1901 by the Chicago architectural firm of A.W. Rush; All followed the essentially the same design: a large, bulky tower surrounded by a massive, fortress-like building with turrets and an arched entranceway. This style is called "Romanesque" (it was developed by the 19th century American architect Henry Hobson Richardson), and typically features rough stonework on the outside with small ornamental details near the doorway (the detail over the front archway of the present courthouse is especially rich).

This was an immensely popular style for public buildings in the 19th century. Its appeal lay in its functionality: there were no elegant columns designed for decoration and every square inch of the interior was utilized. For example, the turrets along side the doorway at the front and back of the building are not simply decorative features; they were used for actual office space. Even the tower, though never utilized as office space, has a function as a landmark. It was modeled on Richardson’s plan for the Trinity Church spire in Boston.

The interior of the courthouse is typical. What is atypical is that so much of it remains in its original state, since many 19th century courthouses were drastically modernized from the mid 1900’s. If the outside of most midwest courthouses followed a fairly strict set of rules, the insides tended to be far more exotic. In 1901, the Iowa City Citizen called the new courthouse a "temple of justice."


CourtroomIn 19th century America, the new religion was equality for all before the law, and the courthouse was the place where justice was revered. Interior decorations emphasized this semi-religious symbolism. The use of stained glass windows was not unusual in court rooms (though never a feature of this courthouse), and the dome on the third floor, made of "art glass" (bits of colored glass held together by leading), was a fairly common feature. Originally, the area above the dome allowed natural light to enter and illuminate it. Thought the dome seems quite unusual, it was almost certainly ordered from a catalog, and an identical replica, unassembled, still remains in storage in the courthouse attic.

By 1900 standards, the courthouse was a modern building, with its electric lights and steam heating. Relatively speaking, its $111,000 cost was not excessive. Some of its features that we think of as luxuries were considered necessities at the time. High ceilings, for example, were considered essential for ventilation purposes in public buildings before rural homes had running water. In 1895, a committee in Bayfield County Wisconsin, rejected a school room for use as a courthouse because its ceilings were only 11 feet tall!