Gothic revival style of courthouse designed to lend dignity, stability
The historic Stutsman County Courthouse was designed to give the city of Jamestown a sense of established longevity, dignity and stability. In order to accomplish that result in 1883, the architect, Henry C. Koch chose a specific architectural style, one usually reserved for grand cathedrals, Ivy League (collegiate gothic) structures or courthouses in highly-populated urban districts across the northeast.
Next to Greek revival (Washington, D.C.), gothic revival architecture was considered the epitome of status and achievement during the mid-to-late 19th century. Since Stutsman County was located where politicians originally planned to place the state’s capital, it’s understandable that they’d want it to be something everyone would be proud to visit. Jamestown didn’t wind up becoming North Dakota’s capital city because Bismarck won out, but the courthouse was appropriate for that designation.
There are other gothic revival or collegiate gothic structures in North Dakota: All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Valley City 1881; St. James Basilica in Jamestown, 1910-1914; Grace Episcopal Church in Jamestown, 1903; Voorhees Chapel on the University of Jamestown campus, 1917; and two Episcopal churches, one in Rugby in 1903 and another in Casselton in 1886.
That’s a short list because the style is rare in North Dakota. The design is always upward and whether secular or religious, has stained glass in some of the windows. The style is sometimes connected with Oxford in England, or the design may resemble the original gothic cathedrals of Paris. But whether it’s a modified brick gothic revival or the 1345 stonework of Notre Dame, it carries the impression of power, stability and security. Not a bad way to describe the Stutsman County Courthouse.
The portico, or entrance to a Gothic Revival building, usually has some features that distinguish it as gothic. There are usually wide steps leading up to double doors with a recessed, pointed archway, emphasizing the grand entrance. Some verticality or upward thrust is an important component.
Had the courthouse been a true gothic cathedral design, its entrance would have been on the west side, with the apse or altar located on its east end. By the 14th century, that orientation was an established pattern for the tall, “wedding cake” gothic cathedrals. Stutsman County’s original courthouse faces the opposite, or the secular positioning. It opens on the east and the courtroom itself is west of the entrance, so the judge faces east.
When gothic revival came to the U.S., architects were rebelling against mechanization and took great pride in creating a structure that had a sense of original creativity as well as permanence and dignity. The arts and craftsman movement came from those architects and artists.
When it opens in September, the courthouse will reveal to visitors its interior beauty and the public will be able to view the exterior as well. The State Historical Society of North Dakota will have interpreters on hand to answer questions and perhaps arrange for special group tours in the future. Members stay busy this time of year throughout the state.
The SHSND will be in Dunn Center, near the Killdeer Battlefield this Saturday to commemorate the sesquicentennial battle of Killdeer Mountain in 1864. It is free and open to the public. There will be events and programs for the entire family. The University of Jamestown’s art department will have an instructor at Killdeer to demonstrate documentary narratives and lead groups in making their own art.
Next week’s column will conclude the four-week series on the Stutsman County Courthouse and will have information about the open house in September.
If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.