Courthouse turns 93 years old

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“The building is a work of art and designed to last the county for 50 years,” declared the Carlton County Vidette newspaper on Thursday, Feb. 14, 1924.

The building was the new Carlton County Courthouse, which was replacing the previous courthouse on the same property. That same courthouse will turn 93 years old next month.

It wasn’t the first county courthouse, of course. The original county seat in 1857 consisted of a stagecoach stop and the tavern served as the courthouse, according to an old story filed away at the Carlton County Historical Society. In 1870 the county was organized and the county seat moved to Thompson where an existing frame building was converted to the courthouse.

A short paragraph in the Vidette shared the story of the demise of that building. “The old county courthouse at Thompson was sold recently by ‘Grandma Mac’ to one Salamanen, a Finnish butcher, and is now being torn apart to be used for other purposes. Part of the lumber will be used for an ice house and part for a small addition to his residence. The price paid was $20.”

According to the story, it was not necessary to vote for the courthouse because there had not previously been a courthouse owned by the county. The old one was owned by the Village of Carlton and the county had used it.

Then, according to the story, in 1890 residents of Northern Pacific Junction paid for a courthouse and the next year changed the name of their town to Carlton. The building — built on lots owned by the village and loaned to the county for use — served the county for 35 years.

There were some hijinks related to the location of the courthouse, according to that long-ago newspaper article.

“... the records had been brought up from Thomson in the night, legally, but not publicly, because of opposition by a certain county officer who deemed the old site by the river commanded a prettier view than the new one up at Carlton … [the officer] went down to St. Paul and got a writ of certiorari, to compel the conveying of all the records of election down before the courts there. While he was absent at St. Paul, the county records were moved here (Carlton) in the night.”

The story continued and revealed the identity of all involved.

“Captain J.M. Paine and his teams and assistants and some of those who are still residents here, they were the ones who made the transfer. The officer who opposed the removal was Harry H. Hawkins, and the Carlton people will readily forgive him now and forget his enthusiasm, because he was a pretty fine gentleman after all. He died too soon to see the new court house here now.”

The original courthouse had issues with rain and snow leaking in the windows as well as problems with the ceilings, according to old stories in the Vidette. “The vault room room was not half big enough to accommodate the records necessary to be filed and kept filed. Books were lying around on the floors and presented an unbusinesslike aspect.”

The old building was condemned in 1922.

The construction for the new courthouse began in September 1922 and was completed Feb. 5, 1924 by Clyde W. Kelly, an architect from Duluth.

The outside of the building is comprised of Indiana limestone, brick and terra cotta. The roof is made of olive green Ludowici roofing tile and the pillars on the front are Bedford stone.

The beautiful stairway is made of Belgian black and Karasota marble with wrought iron railing. The treads, risers and the floors in the halls and corridors are made of terrazzo.

“The third floor courtroom has a cork floor and the walls and ceilings have been acoustically treated and should make a very satisfactory courtroom...The attic is so planned that in the future, if needed, additional office space may be found there,” the newspaper noted.

An elevator shaft was installed, but the elevator was not put in until many years later, possibly the 1930s.

The courthouse was designed to be fireproof, with wood used mainly in doors and trim and the maple floors in offices as well as the rafters. The vault floors were made of Asbestone boards — asbestos-containing concrete panels specifically made for floors, walls and ceilings, according to their website.

A copper deposit box was placed in a cornerstone on the southwest side of the courthouse Nov. 4, 1922 by the Masons. In the box there was a small bible, one copy of each county newspaper of that week, a poem by Julius B. Baumann, some reliable historical figures by Henry C. Oldenburg, a copy of the county commissioner’s proceedings authorizing the erection of the courthouse, a copy of the county financial statement of the county for 1922, and a list of the present county officials.

The building is 126 feet long, 79 feet wide and about 48 feet high to the cornice and 57 feet to the top of the roof, with three stories and a basement.

The bonds were $180,000, bringing the total building cost for the courthouse to approximately $301,350, including furniture. The last bond was paid off Feb.19,1943, according to a large headline in the newspaper.

The grand opening was Feb. 22, 1922, President George Washington’s birthday. It was a huge affair featuring several guest speakers and a lunch served from noon until evening by the women of the city.

After several musical performances the Honorable Bert Fesler, district judge, spoke. He claimed he had not known before he saw his name on the program that he was to speak that day.

“However, Judge Fesler is always able to take care of such a situation and entertained the audience with some humorous remarks and stories which resulted in several hearty laughs,” the newspaper detailed. “He explained that architect Kelly had probably not given the real reason why we had a three story building instead of a one story. He told of a court case down in Indiana where the courthouse was only a one-story affair. One day as a lawyer was making very earnest plea, a donkey hitched outside let out a vociferous bray. The judge told the lawyer to ‘just wait a minute please — I can't listen to two at once.’”

The Carlton County Courthouse was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and boasts a Renaissance Revival architectural style.

As the county grew, so did the need for space in the courthouse. A remodel project got underway in 1978 with a budget of $281,000.

More storage space was added in the basement, as well as an employee lounge.

While updates to carpets, windows and curtains have taken place over the years, the majority of the work and the biggest changes took place on the fourth floor of the courthouse.  

At the time there were about 18 Human Services offices on the fourth floor, according to Monty Lundberg, head of maintenance. Lundberg began working at the courthouse in the summer of 1978 and remembers many of the updates that took place, from the remodeling of the courthouse, to the building of the current jailhouse.

A new courtroom was built, as well as offices for the judges and a self-help area with legal books for those who wish to represent themselves.

Keeping up with modern technology, many of the areas in the courthouse can only be accessed by key cards.

There are now 30 security cameras inside the courthouse, with more added outside in the parking lot, according to Peter Gould, county IT director. The county has been slowly updating security over the last five to 10 years in all of the buildings, including the courthouse. Law enforcement and government service building and transportation department cameras can be accessed from inside the courthouse also.

“There was an issue where someone thought their car was vandalized in our lot and we took a look and it actually wasn't,” said Gould. “The car pulled into one of the front spots and we watched it for about an hour and then the guy pulled away, then he claimed there was vandalism. We were able to repute it and nothing became of it.”

As for the courthouse itself, it was well built and will continue to serve its purpose for many years to come, if all goes as planned.

“There was a study done here two years ago and the engineers said the courthouse will be here for another 50 years,” said Lundberg.