As my title indicates, this will be the first of what I assume to be many blog posts about courthouses. Riveting at first glance, I know. While my sarcasm subsides, I’ll tell you that county courthouses actually do hold interest to me, and they should interest you too. Missouri Life has put me to the task of photographing and researching unique county courthouses in Missouri. That’s 115 in total including the independent city of St. Louis. A lot to sift through, but I think I’m the right person for the job.
Architecture has always interested me. I dreamt of being two things as a child, a librarian and a real estate agent, (not an architect though, interestingly.) I may have also wanted to be a singer at some point, but the interest in buildings and their details has never left me. I still consider that profession to this day, to mix and match with my photography and journalism if it pleases me. Old buildings have a particular intrigue about them- history.
I don’t know what it is about dead people and times past, but they fascinate many a person. Ghost Hunters anyone? Every vacation I go on there’s a haunted old mansion tour or a ghost tour, sometimes both (hem hem, New Orleans). I guess the way I would describe this fascination we have is as a fascination with ourselves. In all honesty, every time I go someplace full of obvious history, I wonder what the world around me now will look like in say, 200 to 1000 years. What would a tour say about my generation? Would people of the future even care enough to go on tours?
Try as we might to distance ourselves from the past, whether it be our own or in general, there’s always this ancestral tug, beckoning us to look closer at where we came from, what we used to be like and how we came to be the way we are today. All of the advances in the world can’t distract from the wonder of our origins. If there’s anything I learned from Prometheus it’s that we are deeply curious about our beginnings and our purpose.
Wow, I got all of that out of some old buildings? Well, this is what you should get out of this post: We leave behind buildings, scrolls, and images to say something about ourselves to future generations, to stand the test of time. These courthouses, like many aging structures, hold stories, meanings, and mystery.
The Phelps County courthouse in Rolla, MO for example was a Confederate and Union stronghold in the Civil War. It has been used as a hospital, jail, and a quartermaster store. I can only imagine the ghosts haunting that place.
The original Phelps County courthouse, located in Rolla, MO, was built along the Pacific Railroad for ease of transportation. It proved to be a strategic location during the Civil War and dominated the Rolla horizon for many years.
In Boone County, the current courthouse is actually the third, but the remains of the second still stand, aligned with the columns on the University of Missouri’s campus. The columns of the second courthouse were preserved by a conscious decision of the locals to restore them. I can still remember how I felt the first time I saw the columns when I moved to Columbia in 1999. The two sets of columns looking at each other from several blocks away felt eerily comforting, if those two words together make sense. Remnants of a time past, one is the remains of a fire and the other representative of a torn down county seat, both were saved by locals who admired them.
I can see the incredulousness of it, love for stone structures, but when I see them winking at each other from a distance as if to say, “We made it!”, I can understand why they were protected, to let us in the future know that their mark had been left, and it had been left for us. How we interpret their meaning is up to us, and that’s the exciting part of it, no single interpretation is correct. We just have to know the option is there, and we have the opportunity to leave behind meaning as well… or maybe just mystery.
The columns of the second courthouse built in Columbia, MO still stand at the edge of the square, an odd location, but chosen for the purpose of aligning with the Academic Hall columns on Mizzou’s campus. Academic Hall burned down in 1892, but its columns also remain.