1901 – Opening Johnson County’s New Court House.

It’s Saturday – June 8th, 1901 in Iowa City, Iowa. The city is full of excitement – for today is the big dedication ceremony for the new Johnson County Court House. According to the local newspapers at the time – this is one of the largest celebrations in Iowa City in years.

It is not every day that Johnson County has a court house to dedicate, and it will be many years before the county will again be called upon to gather together and give a new home the honor it deserves.

The Iowa City Citizen – on June 7 – has four pages dedicated to the story. One page includes seemingly every detail of the project: a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the 2,302 votes in favor of the bond issue to build the courthouse (843 residents were opposed); the program for the dedication ceremony; the names of the architects; those who bought the first bonds; and an illustration of the building.
The Daily Iowa State Press, the city’s second newspaper that later merged with its competitor to form the Press-Citizen in 1920, published a similar story on June 10, calling the atmosphere at the dedication ceremony…”redolent of splendid public spiritedness, patriotic ardor, and noble-minded love of justice, equity and right.” Below is just the beginning of the story…

For Johnson County – this new court house was the fourth facility built since the county’s inception in 1838. Here are the other three – #1 – Napoleon (1838), #2 – Iowa City (1842), and #3 – Iowa City (1857). Forty years later, in 1897, serious cracks were discovered in the south wall of Court House #3 – endangering the entire structure – so the need for constructing a fourth court house became immediate. The cornerstone on the new building was laid on December 2, 1899.

These maps (1854 & 1900) of Iowa City reveal that South Clinton Street has long been the home of Johnson County Court Houses. Court House #2 (1842-1850’s) was located on the SE corner of Harrison & Clinton Streets, while #3 (1857-1901) was built in Court House Square, until being replaced with the current Court House #4 (417 S. Clinton Street). Read more details here.

For more about the earliest days of Johnson County and the three court houses – click here.

According to this November 15, 1900 newspaper story (below) – as the construction of Johnson County’s fourth court house was coming to a close, the Board of Supervisors decided to test the strength of the courtroom floors by piling 36,000 pounds of cement (and themselves) on what they thought might be the weakest point. As you can see from the article, the architect’s claim that the floor could hold 125 pounds per square foot was actually an understatement. The true number was three times that!

The Richardsonian Romanesque style courthouse was designed by the firm of Rush, Bowman and Rush of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was bid at a cost of $111,000 – came in at $135,000 – and was built by the firm Rowson & Son of Johnson County. The cornerstone was laid in December 2, 1899, and the building’s 30-foot tower is based on Henry Hobson Richardson’s design for the spire of Trinity Church in Boston.

When completed, no better court house can be found in the entire state, and it will be a source of pride to Johnson County and to the contractor who built it.

Once the court house opened in 1901, it became quite the tourist attraction – being featured on an abundance of penny postcards – the rage of the day.

(P-0301) (P-0045)

(P-0358) Johnson County Court House a rare C.L. Wieneke postcard.

(C-0287) From 1914, here’s a beautiful cacheted postal cover that features the Johnson County Court House and comes from the office of the County Treasurer – J.S. Watson.
(P-0034) Bird’s Eye View of Iowa City – postmarked Nov. 1915 – Looking southwest, note the new Post Office (1904) and City Hall (1881) in the forefront – with the Johnson County Court House in the distance.

Today, the Johnson County Court House is in the midst of a massive, two-year, seven-million dollar renovation project – one that will modernize the facility, yet still maintain all the historic aspects of the building. In 1975, the court house was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and this latest renovation requires updating the building to fit modern usages while ensuring the work doesn’t impinge on the historic nature of the structure.

In a 2022 article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, some of unique historical aspects of the building’s interior were highlighted – including mosaic tile floors, polished oak mill work, two colored glass elliptical skylights, enameled vaults and wall frescoes.

Hidden away in the bowels of the building is the spiral staircase (below) – built to discreetly move prisoners from courtrooms.

Click here to read more about Johnson County courthouses and their place in Iowa City “skyscraper” history.

Ray Forsythe – the special projects manager with Johnson County – concludes…

Our court house is very iconic in the skyline of Iowa City. And, it is really important to maintain this special piece of history. Yes, the newer multi-story buildings in Iowa City might compete with her visually – but this historic treasure must always stand out.

Agreed, Mr. Forsythe – we totally agree!

Above – 2022 – Press Citizen photographer Joseph Cress took many of the photos used on this page. (P-0300) Below – 1914 – photographer Fred Kent captures Old Cap with the tower of the Johnson County Court House in the background.
Below is a view from atop the 30-foot tower of our fair lady – the Johnson County Court House.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

How Iowa City is trying to preserve its history while modernizing courthouse, post office buildings, George Shillcock & Kate Perez, The Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 2, 2022

Johnson County’s Court House, Daily Iowa State Press, June 10, 1901, pp 1, 4

Stands A Great Test – Daily Iowa State Press, November 15, 1900, p 3

Johnson County Courthouse, Iowa Courts History, Iowa Judicial Branch

County Seat Matters, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWeb, 2003

Johnson County Courthouse (Iowa), Wikipedia

Johnson County Courthouse, Iowa City, Iowa, 1970-1976, Iowa City Past

Johnson County, Iowa, Wikipedia


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