Peoria Landmark #305
I could give Msgem grief for calling it the Eureka Courthouse instead of the Woodford County Courthouse, but I won’t because before I looked it up that’s what I called it too.
History of the Woodford County Courthouse, located at 115 N Main St in Eureka, Il:
Most of the area of land now known as Woodford County was originally a part of Sangamon County with the county seat in Springfield. Later it was a part of Tazewell County with the county seat in Pekin. That area was combined with smaller portions of Livingston and McLean Counties. Woodford County was created by an act of the Illinois Legislature on February 17, 1841. One of the prime movers for the new county was Thomas Bullock who selected the name in honor of his former home county in Kentucky
This creating act established the temporary county seat to be in the town of Versailles (then located about two miles southeast of Eureka) on the condition that its citizens provide a courthouse building free of charge. It also provided for a popular election to establish the permanent location within two years; however, this was later amended to allow a decision by five commissioners. The temporary courthouse was duly provided, and the first trials were held there in 1841 with A. Lincoln, David Davis, and A. Gridley being some of the circuit riding attorneys in attendance.
Amidst considerable controversy and devious political maneuvering, it was decided by the commissioners that a permanent courthouse would be constructed in the town of Hanover (now Metamora). The cost of construction was $4,400 for the two-story frame and brick structure, which still exists for public inspection and enjoyment on the Metamora town square. The first session of court in this location was held in September, 1843, with many of the same participants (by this time attorney Davis had become Judge Davis). The town of Versailles was soon to die on the vine and is no more, to be located only by a stone marker along the fence line.
The courthouse remained in Metamora for over 50 years despite various efforts to move it by El Paso (1867), Eureka (1869), and Roanoke (1873 and 1844[?]). In 1894, Eureka, again made the effort, and this time was successful with a vote of 2,695 to 1,960. A lawsuit by Metamora to block the move was ultimately decided by the Illinois Supreme Court, which in 1896 found the election to be valid, and all the county offices were promptly moved to various temporary locations in Eureka.
In 1897, the county board interviewed various architects and hired the firm of Bell and Kent from Council Bluffs, Iowa, who completed its work in four months for a fee of $2,025. The firm had already designed courthouse in other locations, two of which are similar in design. One of those was in Fulton County in Lewistown, IL, and in spite of various additions and modifications over the years one can spot the similarities. The other was for Berrien County in St Joseph, Michigan. Although that courthouse was replaced and no longer exists, old photographs and plans indicated that it was almost an exact twin of ours (perhaps the reason the design was so quicky completed). Another interesting sidenote is that the St Joseph courthouse was also the result of a much litigated county seat relocation.
The Woodford courthouse was constructed by the H. C. Bruning firm from Havana for a bid of $60,762. The contract provided for completion during the year of 1897. However, construction was not actualy completed until the spring of 1898. The total cost, including heating plant, fixtures and furniture was $90,232. This did not include the corinthian columned bell tower, two ton brass bell and Howard clock donated by the citizens of Eureka in 1906 at a cost of $1,268. The basic structure is of reinforced concrete and brick with a completre stone exterior. The roof trusses are steel and the roof deck is of concrete slab. Windows are high with skylights on the upper two floors. The final result was graced with marble floors and wainscotting, wrought-iron stair and balcony railings, solid quartersawn oak doors and paneling, and deeply molded high ceilings on the upper floors. Many of these features remain today and are the enticements that often bring admirers of old courthouse architecture with their cameras and sketchboards to Eureka.
Over the years since it was completed, the structure has undergone numerous changes and repairs. There have been numerous substantial roof repairs, seven in all, the first being in 1905 and the most recent in 1994. The towerclock has also been a regular repair item; however, that has been less of a problem since it was electrified in 1963 by Eureka watchmaker Ben Schumacher. Early in its history the lawn was graced with a pair of Civil War cannons until 1942 when they were donated for scrap metal purposes to the war effort. Twenty years later, these same cannons were located in an East Peoria junk yard. The board instituted an apparently unsuccessful recovery effort.
Originally there were two court rooms, the larger on the south side of the third floor and the other on the northeast corner of the second floor. In the late 1960′s the smaller courtroom was moved to the northwest corner of the third floor and in a major remodeling was moved to the southeast corner in 1981. At that time the present law library was established along with offices for the public defender, court reporter, and a prisoner holding cell. The dome, cupola, and bell tower structure had been deteriorating for many years, and in 1991 a major renovation was accomplished by resheeting the dome roof, restoring the bell tower stone and steel, and by removing and completely replacing the cupola, including a cupola light which now can be seen from miles around.
In 1973, after considerable debate over its location, the board constructed an elevator in the space previously occupied by the grand staircase at the west entrance (cost $36,628). This constuction and the creation of the large parking lot on the east lawn have resulted in the east entrance becoming the main entry point. The need for courthouse security now limits all public admission to the east entrance. For many years after the advent of air conditioning, the various courts and offices were cooled by numerous window units and the old ceiling fans can now only be seen hanging in the large courtroom. In 1981, the courts were provided central air, and in 1995 the entire building received a complete replacement of the heating and air conditioning systems.
Of course, there have been numerous modifications of office space and upgrading of rest rooms, wiring, storm windows, and so forth during the last 100 years; however, except for the elevator, there have been no real changes to the basic structure itself. It has managed to retain most of the charm and usefulness of the original design. Constructed at a cost well under $100,000, it is currently valued at $2,815,000.
Possessing an honorable history with many years of service to the county and a future with years to come, our courthouse almost seems to have a personality of its own. It has been a silent witness to generations of public servants, to joyous moments, and to events of tragedy and sadness. If one walks alone within its walls and on its darkened stairs in the wee hours of the night, you can almost hear the walls whisper of its memories, all 100 years of them.