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Treasures housed in historic county courthouse

Six years before Dakota Territory was divided and North Dakota became the 39th state, the Stutsman County Courthouse was built in Jamestown. Completed in 1883, it has for 131 years stood at 504 3rd Ave. SE as a dignified beacon of county government. Its clock has not been set for a while, and there has not been a court case heard since the early 1980s, when a new courthouse was built. Though its brick façade is intact and its infrastructure working, it has not been used for more than three decades. But like the mythological phoenix, it is becoming a safe and useful building again, and its heart will soon beat strong.

The State Historical Society of North Dakota was given ownership of the building in 1987, following it being named to the National Register of Historic Places during the nation’s bicentennial. It remains the only building in North Dakota designed by noted designer Henry C. Koch. The Milwaukee architect was a topographic engineer for Gen. Philip H. Sheridan during the Civil War, and later was a partner with G.W. Mygatt before starting his own firm. Koch is known for designing Milwaukee’s city hall, more than 120 schools, and 26 courthouses ... among them, Stutsman County’s.

The courthouse is a pristine example of Gothic Revival design, a rare style in the Upper Midwest. Inside its rooms, pressed metal designs remain intact and are the most complete example of the 1905 upgrade in the state. It is the oldest extant courthouse in the state of North Dakota. An addition, designed by Gilbert R. Horton, was made to the rear of the building in 1926.

The bell/clock tower rises high above the neighborhood marking the heart of Stutsman County’s legal decisions and enforcement. Its rare Gothic Revival architectural style lent dignity to its purpose and distinguished it from other fine buildings going up in town at that time.

Preservation of the structure has been primary, with committees formed and regrouping over time, as people moved in or left the area.  The original 1883 Committee gathered in the 1980s and was able to delay plans to demolish the courthouse. Members of that group included current residents Mary Young, David Morlock, Kate Stevenson and Art Todd, as well as a number of other concerned citizens who did not want to see that building destroyed.

Committee members numbered about 25 by 1992, according to Barb Lang, secretary-treasurer for the current 1883 committee, and they approached the State Historical Society of North Dakota for financial help in order to fund repairs to the exterior of the building.

“The SHSND provided some funding,” Lang said, “somewhere close to $100,000… and Sen. Dave Nething was instrumental in getting the state Legislature to appropriate $200,000, to help us reach the local capital campaign total of $250,000, which was necessary to start the repairs to the brickwork.”

The brickwork was starting to show its age and needed tuck-pointing in order to maintain the integrity of the Anton Klaus bricks, which are themselves rare examples of early Jamestown history. Once that was complete, the front steps and landing were replaced, the front doors painted their original color, and the yard was landscaped. Lang said it was at that time the clock was repaired and “put back in working order.”

But some would ask why any of this matters. I remember hearing more than 20 years ago the same questions. How will that old building add to the life of Jamestown and its citizens?

We would not ask that question of a museum that acquired a Da Vinci painting … or a sculpture by Michelangelo. The reason that courthouse must be preserved in-situ, where it stands … is that it is an architectural jewel, and it is still standing right where it was built. Sure, the SHSND could have taken it apart and moved it, in order that a parking lot could be put in that location. But the Stutsman County Courthouse is a work of art. It belongs here, where it was built. And thankfully, some people realized its value in time to save it.

Saving it adds value to Jamestown. We have Frontier Village, Fort Seward, the National Buffalo Museum and Stutsman County Memorial Museum, as well as sites designating where Louis L’Amour and Peggy Lee lived. The original Stutsman County Courthouse will become a site available to the public, to use, to tour and to enjoy.

More will be forthcoming about an open house, which will have interpreters on hand to help explain the interior rooms and uses.

Restoration efforts have stabilized the exterior of the courthouse. Rehabilitation is dependent upon future availability of funds. To make a contribution to the restoration of this significant monument, contact the State Historical Society Foundation, P.O. Box 1976, Bismarck, ND 58502-1976.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.