The Magnificent Brown County Courthouse
Over 100 years ago, Brown County, Wisconsin, was experiencing a period of major growth—in population, business and industry. Census records, for instance, tell of a population that increased by 35% in the decade between 1900 and 1910. With such expansion came increasing demand and need for governmental services. Many of these services were at that time housed in a county courthouse that had been constructed in 1866. Forty-two years later that courthouse not only lacked space but also such physical amenities (indoor plumbing and central heating) that many had come to expect of public buildings.
Thus, it was that the Brown County Board of Supervisors in 1908 decided to build a new courthouse to replace the 1860’s structure. Appointing a special Building Committee of seven men (Paul Scheuring, W.E. Burdeau, F.A. Bowser, Charles Caughlin, Thomas Dillion, Joseph H. Servotte and H.E. Metzner), their objective was to create a courthouse which would not be surpassed in the state.
At that time, the County was involved in several other building projects. A new jail, heating plant and sheriff’s residence were already under construction on a downtown city block in Green Bay, adjacent to the newly-completed Federal Building (now the Brown County Law Enforcement Center). The County Board voted to purchase the remaining lots on that same block (bounded by Walnut, Jefferson, Doty and Adams Streets) for a cost of $54,276.35.
C.E. Bell, who designed the state capitol of South Dakota, was hired to be the architect for the new courthouse while General Construction Company of Milwaukee was chosen as the general contractor. In September of 1908, County Clerk, Elmer S. Hall, broke ground and construction began at a breakneck pace to complete as much work as possible before the advent of bad weather. Examination of newspaper accounts turns up only one major controversy regarding the construction of the courthouse. Evidently, there was considerable argument on the County Board floor as to whether or not to have a comprehensive clock system within the courthouse. The Board finally voted for the $2,726.50 system, and so the tower bell and Seth Thomas clock and the office clock system were installed during construction. (The clocks seen in the courthouse dome today and their internal mechanism are the originals installed during the original construction.)
During the early days of construction, the County Board decided to add an additional $8,000 to the project budget for interior decoration. Associated Artists of Milwaukee won the bid to provide stenciling and painted murals for beautification of the interior spaces.
By the Fall of 1910, the new courthouse was completed and county departments began moving in during the month of October. All County offices were houses within, including three courtrooms, the Clerk of Courts, the Register of Deeds, the County Clerk, the County Treasurer, the Sheriff, the Superintendent of Schools, a County Board Meeting Room and overnight jury accommodations. The final cost of the building was listed as follows:
Courthouse Building $239,751.63 Courthouse Furniture 24,769.39 Courthouse Site 54,276.35 Total $318,797.67
Formal dedication of the new courthouse occurred on Friday and Saturday, January 13 and 14, 1911. The full Brown County Board of Supervisors and the officials who occupied the courthouse acted as the reception committee. Building funds were used to hire Vandenberg’s orchestra and to purchase flowers and palms to decorate the room sand corridors. The Green Bay Gazette of January 14, 1911 reported that over 4,000 people had visited by the end of the evening on Friday and by Saturday night the count had exceeded 10,000 (the County’s population at this time was 25,226). “Farmers who live many miles out in the country traveled over hard, rough roads to be here to see the courthouse…”
The public called it a magnificent public building and a fitting symbol of Brown County’s growth and its place in history.Time passed, the county grew even more, needs changed and so did the courthouse. By 1986, it was evident that the courthouse, as it was, no longer met either the current or future needs of the county. Nor could it be called a “magnificent structure.” Portions of the exterior stonework had crumbled or fallen away, the copper dome and roof were covered with pitch and silver paint, the stenciled interior walls and gold leaf decoration painted over, the coffered ceilings obscured by drop ceilings and banks of fluorescent lights.
In 1986, the Brown County Capital Improvements Committee hired CPR Associates, Inc., an architecture/engineering firm located in De Pere, Wisconsin, to conduct a study of the courthouse with the intent of determining how two additional courtrooms might be interjected into the existing building. This move was necessary because jail space was having to expand in the Brown County Safety Building, taking over rooms in use as courtrooms. As a result of numerous meetings between the architects, judges, clerks, etc., it quickly became clear that the space that was available within the courthouse was woefully inadequate. Not only could they not fit in the two new courtrooms, but those already in existence within the building did not meet state standards for judicial space requirements. In addition, it was apparent that the building was in dire need of repair, violating various state life safety codes. Exterior stonework, the roof, plumbing and electrical systems, fire prevention systems and HVAC were some of the major problems. Judges told of having to have buckets in the courtrooms to catch drips from the ceilings during rainstorms. The water was turned off at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday because the plumbing system was in such poor shape that major damage would have occurred if a pipe broke when the building was unoccupied. The hot water had long been shut off. It had to be piped in from the Safety Building and took 15 minutes to reach the courthouse—and since few wanted to wait that long, it was considered non-essential. These were just a few of the horror stories heard by CPR.
In their March 16, 1987 Assessment Report to the Brown County Capital Improvements Committee, CPR Associates, Inc. offered three options:
1. Renovate existing courthouse—This option was deemed “marginal at best” since it provided only seven of the nine courtrooms required and only met 58% of Wisconsin state standards for judiciary space.
2. Renovate existing courthouse and provide an addition—This option was the favored one since it not only provided the needed space, but also “maintained the architectural integrity of the existing building” (pg. 38).
3. Building a new structure at remote site—While this option would meet all state space standards, a new building would not have the historical or architectural significance of the old. It also would not occupy a prominent place in the center of town.
A Courthouse Advisory Committee, appointed by County Executive Thomas Cuene and consisting of:
- Sarah Thulin: Chairwoman of the Capital Improvements Committee
- Harry Watson: Brown County Building Superintendent
- Judge Vivi Dilweg: Judicial Representative
- Judge Patrick Crooks: Judicial Representative
- Bill Sucha: District Court Administrator
- Ann Koski: Director of Neville Public Museum
- Maggie Collum: Secretary of Preservation Committee, Brown County Historical Society
Funding for the courthouse project was provided by a series of bonds issued through Brown County. Total cost of the entire project was $10,600,000.
One of the more controversial aspects of the project was the question of historical restoration of the three most public areas of the courthouse: the rotunda, Circuit Court Branch I’s Courtroom and Circuit Court Branch IV’s Courtroom. The final bonding issue was slated to be used to restore these spaces to their original splendor. Photographs found in the archives of the Brown County Library, Local History Department, showed these areas in their 1911 glory. Budgeted in an earlier phase of the project had been a preliminary study by Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin. This firm, which is internationally known, sent its crafts people to document the original decorative scheme. They carefully stripped back areas to expose original decoration and then made tracings of them to produce patterns of the designs. Core samples of the original paint were taken so that laboratory analysis could later reveal the true colors (the original colors had changed and faded over the years from exposure and then chemical changes due to being covered by paint). Finally, the artisans produced a comprehensive catalogue of all the designs used in the designated areas.
To help convince the public and the Brown County Board of Supervisors of the dramatic difference which could be made in the building with the restoration, Conrad Schmitt Studios sent workmen to paint and stencil a small portion of Circuit Court Branch I Courtroom. The County Board Committees who were to vote on this funding proposal, and later the entire County Board itself, were toured through this partially restored area to acquaint them with the project. Local media and interested groups, such as the Brown County Historical Society, added their support. Although the committees had only recommended partial funding, the County Board as a whole voted to finance the entire cost of the restoration phase of the project. That phase took almost a year to complete.
Scaffolding sprang up everywhere. In the courtrooms, fluorescent lights were removed, ceilings were replastered and base coats of paint applied. One man spent his entire time cutting the necessary stencils for the designs. In Circuit Court Branch I’s Courtroom, the swag pattern in the ceiling required 25 different stencils to complete one loop of the swag. Gold leaf was carefully burnished on. Damaged plaster cornices were removed and the new ones cast and installed. Only when the ceilings were completed was the scaffolding removed and work on the walls begun.
In the rotunda, scaffolding rose up to the top of the dome. The four mural paintings by Franz Soling, of Justice, Agriculture, Commerce and Industry were carefully cleaned and then coated with a non-yellowing sealant. The stained glass window was cleaned and silver and gold leaf added to the decorative moldings. Some columns were replaced. It is interesting to note that those are not marble, but wood painted to look like marble (scagliola). The marble wainscoting was removed, cleaned, repaired and replaced. The original copper plated doors were recoated with copper base paint and resealed. The terrazzo and marble mosaic floors were repaired, repolished, cleaned and sealed. All the light fixtures in the three historic areas were recreated, based on the 1911 photographs, except for the wall sconces in the rotunda which are the originals restored, rewired and put back into service.
And so, on January 12, 13 and 14 of 1993, the newly-restored Brown County Courthouse was rededicated and reintroduced to the people of Brown County. Once again this magnificent building fulfills its original objective—a courthouse which cannot be surpassed in the state.
COST OF COURTHOUSE
General Construction Co., general contract $192,129.00
Extra foundation $297.00
Extra ventilation $900.00
Extra coping and ventilators $459.91
Extra ornamental plaster work $847.00
Extra miscellaneous work $240.10
Martin & Wigman, heating contract $6,880.00
Extra changing piping $64.40
George F. Reeke, plumbing contract $5,130.00
Extra piping and fountain $425.01
The Morreau Co., light fixtures contract $3,000.00
Extra fixtures for the court benches $43.00
Hahl Automatic Clock Co., tower and local clocks $2,726.50
Associated Artists, decorating $8,000.00
McCrum-Howell Co., vacuum cleaning plant $1,750.00
Andrae Electrical Co., conduits for telephone wires $283.50
Green Bay Corrugating Co., weather vane $30.00
N. W. Marble & Tile Co., marble drinking fountains $250.00
Langstadt & Meyer, electric wiring $111.65
Jos. Vandergaet, extra mason work $3.05
Jos. Weber, clock house and extra door $59.41
Weismiller & Armstrong, extra copper work $5.03
H. A. Giles, tunnel from heating plant to courthouse $745.35
Dyer & Field, services as expert ventilating engineers $100.00
J. A. Murphy, services as superintendent $1,806.00
J. H. Servotte, services as superintendent $520.25
C. E. Bell, architect’s commission $12,944.78
Total cost of courthouse building: $239,751.63
COST OF SHERIFF’S RESIDENCE, JAIL AND HEATING PLANT
Hinckley & Powers, sheriff’s residence, jail and powerhouse, buildings, including steel jail $38,417.00
Extra work on foundation and cement steps $143.32
Martin & Wigman, heating, including two Bonson boilers, vacuum pumps and regulation $6,990.00
Edward Garot, plumbing $4,853.00
William Neuman, flue cleaners (2) $125.00
Foeller & Schober, architect’s fees $2,520.93
Total cost of jail and power plant: $53,049.25
COST OF COUTHOUSE FURNITURE
Art Metal Construction Co., steel furniture and book cases $10,656.00
Thos. Robertson & Co., specified furniture $7,499.00
Lefebvre Furniture Co., desks, chairs, tables, etc. $5,760.75
Chairs, bases, tips and shoes $57.04
Weise-Hollman Co., cuspidors and mats $238.80
A. Spuhler Co., curtains $151.80
Flour City Iron Works, bronze tablet $147.75
Langstadt & Meyer, changing light bulbs $2.25
G. B. Gas & Electric Co., electric light bulbs $187.00
C. Vincent, labor, fixing tips in chairs $17.00
Opening day expenses, music, plants and flowers $51.90
Total cost of courthouse furniture: $24,769.39
Courthouse building $239,751.63
Courthouse furniture $24,769.39
Sheriff’s residence, jail and power house $53,049.25
Courthouse site $54,276.35
Grand total of cost: $371,846.62