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Courthouse cloaked in elegance

Steven Reidburn, site supervisor at Fort Buford, and I took a tour of the 1883 Stutsman County Courthouse with Guinn Hinman, sites manager for the northern region of remote sites for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. It was raining and muggy that last week of June, and I fully expected the inside of that old building to be stifling and unbearable. I was wrong.

Hinman led us past Dan Poland’s crane and up the wide stairway, through the entrance, down the dim hall and into a room where an old pew, an upright piano and a sink top were grouped together with insulation and furniture pieces.

The walls from the floor to the chair rail were a pale, bluish-green. The upper wall to the picture rail was a lighter tint, and the frieze to the ceiling was a warm, cream color.

I recognized some of the embossed patterns — quatrefoils from the Romanesque period of Rome’s first major building campaign following the Middle Ages, egg and dart trim (a Greek derivative that is still available today at finer wood-trim suppliers), a Corinthian column motif under the chair rail (Greek into Roman influence), a collection of designs that looked like a Spanish wrought iron balustrade, and some distinct, British-influenced panels that looked like a Charles Rennie Mackintosh-style wallpaper of the late 19th century.

We walked into the courtroom, where weighty decisions were once made regarding the future of the Dakota Territory, and where leaders thought the capital might be located once North Dakota became a state. It felt like we were in a museum of rare and priceless objects, but in this 131-year-old courthouse, I could touch things.

The most surprising part of the tour — outside of getting to walk through the historic structure — was the tin work on the walls and ceilings. The pieces fit together like puzzle pieces — 3-D puzzle pieces.

Either the panels were ordered to fit the winding stairwell, abrupt directional changes or odd spaces, or workers put the entire interior covering together with Swiss-clockwork precision. The courthouse is clad in ornamental, embossed and subtly-painted metal wall covering, from the floor up and covering every surface.

Wall coverings have a long and logical history. Whether wallpaper, tin or some other wall covering, it began with nomadic people weaving fiber cloths and using them to make a wall or line a wall. It was common practice in western Europe for royalty to line castle walls with heavy tapestries, carpets and decorative flags.

Later, when paper made “wall decoration” available for the middle class, wallpaper functioned as a less expensive replacement for the illusion of the royal castle decoration. Walls could have overall designs and color previously reserved only for the wealthy.

But wallpaper on a wooden wall — like carpet and damask — burned easily, especially where dwellings were no longer stone fortresses. So toward the end of the 19th century — when metals became a more malleable material and factories could turn out a uniform and beautiful metal panel that was inexpensive enough for middle class families to use in homes as well as civic buildings — tin was used to protect from fire and weather and also to look very attractive.

The county installed the stamped metal panels in 1905 to the entire interior of the building. Before then, plaster on lath was the standard treatment for interior walls. All this soon will be available for the public to see.

The 1883 committee, along with the SHSND, will host a public open house in September. Interpreters will be on hand to answer questions and guide groups through the building. It will be open to allow for meetings and events. More information on that will be forthcoming.

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