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.
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.
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!
“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-0358) Johnson County Court House – a rare C.L. Wieneke postcard.
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.
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!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.