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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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The second Dubuque County Courthouse was constructed in 1839 to replace a log building located on Washington (Square) Park. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

DUBUQUE COUNTY COURTHOUSE. When Dubuque was platted by an act of Congress on July 3, 1836 the United States reserved from sale the land on which the first courthouse had stood. The first building for public meetings and the administration of justice was a log structure in what became WASHINGTON PARK. Constructed by the Methodists in 1833 as a church, the building during the week found use as a school and courthouse. The first District Court of Iowa convened in this building in 1837. (1)

Edward LANGWORTHY donated land to the county for the site of a courthouse at Seventh and Clay (now Central). The second county courthouse (pictured) was a massive brick structure built from 1839-1841 by a John Sullivan and an Amos Mathews who plastered it. (2) An estimated 244,518 bricks for the construction came from the Langworthy brickyards. Samuel Wilkings and Joseph Ogilby were both credited with being the architect. An addition to the west was constructed in 1856 from a design made by John Francis RAGUE. (3)

With the growth in population, citizens began discussing the construction of a new courthouse. The current courthouse was surrounded by commercial development. Residents near the Washington Square, however, protested the construction plans there and nothing was done. (4)

Senator Allison introduced a bill in Congress in 1876 giving Washington Square to the county for courthouse purposes. This was opposed not only be nearby residents but also by citizens who felt the county could afford to buy the land. (5) Among other suggested sites for the new building was JACKSON PARK because the location was near "the center of population." An ordinance in 1861, however, stated that the site was "reserved, dedicated and established as a public square to be known as Jackson Square forever...as a place of public resort and recreation. (6) Those with a view to the future made the case for building the courthouse along 18th street "as it would be near the center of population fifteen or twenty years hence." (7)

Deteriorating conditions in the courthouse led the Board of Supervisors in 1890 to launch a campaign for a new building. In 1890 with Peter KLAUER presiding, a committee adopted a resolution on April 22nd stating

         Resolved, That it is the sense of this committee that there be
         submitted to a vote at a special election, the question, "Shall
         shall the county issue $125,000 twenty-five year four percent
         bonds for the purpose of building a courthouse? with the under-
         standing that such a courthouse shall be built on the present
         site or on such other suitable site as the city or the citizens
         of the city of Dubuque may donate to the county for that purpose.

The date of the special election was to be selected by the board of supervisors "after the planting season and at a date which will be most convenient to the farmers." (8) The date chosen was June 3, 1890. On the following day the announcement was made that a majority of the citizens (a margin of an estimated 1,000 voters by publication time of the Dubuque Herald) approved of the proposal. (9)

Discussion again arose as to where a courthouse should be placed. On June 16, 1890 a petition from seventeen taxpayers suggested the site should be Jackson Park. Judge LACY, Benjamin William spoke against the petition stating the citizens had improved property believing that the adjoining land was reserved for park purposes. Thomas CONNOLLY and John Pier spoke in favor of maintaining the new courthouse in the present location. (10) The question was finally settled by the board of supervisors at its July 19, 1890 meeting. (11)

The first round of bids were opened on December 26, 1890. The basement had been completed and the iron and bronze work contract had been awarded. When the cost of these two were deducted from the $125,000 authorized for the building, all bids came in too high and were rejected. (12) Frustration with the cost of the basement and the difficulty selling construction bonds again caused consideration of moving the site to Washington Park. (13) By January 18, 1891 a total of $4,000 had been collected to pay the costs of removing the foundation already constructed. (14) The board of supervisors moved forward with another round of bidding from which a contract for the entire project was awarded to ALBERT NEY of Dubuque for $78,000. (15)

In March 1891 the Trades and Labor Congress composed of representatives of all labor unions in the city voted to investigate the awarding of the contract to Ney. It appeared that nearly all the money for labor was going to people from other cities. (16) On December 9, 1891 John Kuntz, a bricklayer, was killed when a wall gave way and he fell. (17)

Laying the cornerstone of the courthouse in 1891. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

The present Courthouse, Dubuque's best example of BEAUX ARTS ARCHITECTURE, was designed by Fridolin HEER and Son and dedicated on January 16, 1893. (18) It is constructed of gray Indiana limestone, brick and molded terra cotta. One of the first local buildings added to the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES, the Courthouse is eighty-eight by one hundred twenty-five feet in size. (19) A central tower rising one hundred ninety feet is capped with a fourteen-foot tall bronze statue of Justice. Allegorical pewter figures remain on the building. (20) Three statues stand atop to portico, or balcony, near Central Avenue. These figures, taken from Greek mythology, are the "Three Fates" which represent the destiny of mankind. The goddess at the rear spins the web of life; the one on the right measures life's length, the third cut it. (21)

In October 1895 Judge Husted called in a grand jury to investigate the sanitary conditions of the building. Foul odors, it was found, were caused by the plumbing contractor, Wm. S. Molo, not installing ventilation of all the toilets and washrooms as had been listed in the specifications. A representative of the company suggested that a fan system could remedy the situation. The Dubuque Daily Herald suggested that instead of asking tax payers to pay for something else, the company should install the ventilation called for originally. (22)

During WORLD WAR I, four large statues of winged angels with trumpets were removed and melted down to aid in the war effort. A glass dome on the fourth floor was removed when the elevator was installed. (23)

The Dubuque Cultural Commission in 1962 endorsed a project that would improve the appearance of the courthouse dome. Suggesting that work begin in 1963, the Commission suggested that the dome be painted and lighted "because the courthouse is the tallest building in Dubuque and a low-flying airplane could hit it." Lighting would also make the dome and the statue of Justice stand out. (24)

In 1965 the GRUEN REPORT recommended that the courthouse be demolished with a proposed freeway being constructed over the site. Interest, however, in keeping the 78-year old building had increased with URBAN RENEWAL and the demolition of many of the city's rundown buildings giving residents a better view of the historic building. (25)

Isabel Jarvis sketch. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
One of the significant events in saving the courthouse came in 1969. The Dubuque County Board of Supervisors was presented with a sketch made of the courthouse in 1958 by Isabel F. Jarvis, a retired executive director of the Chicago Arts Club. Using a technique she called "letter design"--a flat, two-dimensional view with no shadows, Jarvis sketched the building while on a visit to Dubuque in 1958. The original sketch was accepted by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D. C. Jarvis remarked that the courthouse was "poetically inspiring" in comparison to the new courthouses which were "mere boxes of concrete and glass. "There is no other courthouse in America that looks like the one in Dubuque, Iowa." (26)

On July 23, 1970 the Chicago engineering firm of C. F. Murphy and Associates presented a $2 million program to renovate the courthouse. Under their plan, county offices would be moved out of the courthouse for 1.5 years during renovation. (27) Among the changes proposed was the removal of the large flight of stairs on Central Avenue and those inside from first to third floors. The large interior steps would be replaced by smaller flights throughout the building. An elevator would serve all floors. (28) Although the renovation was supported by the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors, DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY, a citizen's committee led by John PETRAKIS, and other groups, the project failed to achieve the 60% approval by those voting.

Renovation poster asking area residents to contribute to the restoration project. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: dubuquepostcards.com
Photo courtesy: Larry Hoelscher
Renovation of the building in the 1980s included a ground floor entrance to replace the second floor entrance on Central Avenue. A controversial plan to spend $75,000 to apply paper-thin 23-carat gold leaf to the dome was announced in 1983. The county supervisors approved the project on a 2-1 vote in October. If private funds could not be raised to cover the costs, money would be taken from the county's federal revenue sharing fund. Opponents pointed to cutbacks in social services that had been made and contended the project was a waste of money. Proponents countered that the gold leaf would not require the maintenance of a copper-clad roof and would attract visitors and help raise civic pride. The first step was a mailing to 500 business and community leaders. (29) Private support for the $74,500 project included a $10,000 donation from the Marcella Lott Trust Fund. Much of the remaining money came from federal revenue sharing. (30)

Interior work included the addition of a granite fountain, a reminder of the original watering troughs for horses that stood outside. Plaster was removed from the walls to reveal the original brick and a five-story glass-encased elevator was added. (31) The desire of the residents to maintain the building was shown by a rejection of a bond issue to add an annex and the public outcry when the Department of Transportation proposed demolishing the building for a new freeway. (32)

In fiscal 1993-1994 nearly $830,000 was planned for improvements in the courthouse. Of the total, about half would be spent on preserving the tower. The railings needed repair and the eaves and railings needed painting. While the scaffolding was in place, efforts were considered to polish the 23-karat gold leaf. At the suggestion of architects, soap and water will be used to clean the dome. The additional money would be: $81,000 to pave the parking lot, $30,000 for new carpet, $23,500 for repairing the fourth floor porch, and $15,000 to remodel judges' chambers. (33)

In February 2017 the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors approved a funding plan for the renovation and remodeling of the county courthouse’s 5th floor. That floor would eventually house juvenile court services. The money to pay for the $2.2 million project would come from the county’s long-term capital infrastructure fund. There was some discussion about paying for the project with debt services money, which would be available in the fiscal year 2019 budget. Juvenile court services were currently located in the county Law Enforcement Center, but the department had outgrown their space in that building. The renovation of the 5th floor would provide some needed relief. Renovations to the 5th floor of the courthouse were expected to start in spring and be completed over the summer. (34)

Among the most memorable incidents at the courthouse was the time its exterior was climbed by Everett "Shorty" AKINS.

Celebration envelope



1. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-20-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml

2. "Back When," October 3, 1962, p. 28

3. Oldt.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, January 20, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760120&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. "The New Court House," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 23, 1890, p. 4

9. "The Battle is Won," Dubuque Daily Herald, June 4, 1890, p. 4

10. "Fighting Jackson Park," Dubuque Daily Herald, June 17, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900617&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

11. "The Old Site Selected," Dubuque Daily Herald, July 20, 1890, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900720&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

12. "All Bids Declared Off," Dubuque Daily Herald, December 27, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18901227&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

13. "The New Courthouse," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 10, 1891, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910110&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

14. "That Court House Again," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 18, 1891, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910118&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

15. "The Court House Contract," Dubuque Daily Herald, February 12, 1891, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910212&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

16. "Fighting Scab Labor," Dubuque Daily Herald, March 24, 1891, p. 4

17. "Dashed Down to Death," Dubuque Daily Herald, December 10, 1891, p. 4

18. "Held Open House," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 17, 1893, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18930117&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

19. "The Court House Location," Dubuque Herald, June 17, 1890, p. 4

20. Kruse, Len. "The County Courthouse," My Old Dubuque, Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, p. 42-44

21. Miller, Jim. "Immortalized by an Artist," Telegraph-Herald, September 28, 1969, p. 9

22. "Court House Odor," Dubuque Daily Herald, October 19, 1895, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18951019&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

23. Kruse

24. "Courthouse Dome Work is Endorsed," Telegraph Herald, September 19, 1962, p. 1

25 Bulkley, John. "Freeway Planning Tied to Courthouse Decision," Telegraph Herald, July 22, 1970

26. Miller

27. "Supervisors Reaffirm Support for Renovation," Telegraph-Herald, June 3, 1971, p. 6

28. Walters, Steve. "Courthouse Fix-Up Cost: $2 Million," Telegraph Herald, July 24, 1970, p. 1

29. Goessl, Joan. "Letters Solicit Private Money for Gold Dome," Telegraph Herald, December 23, 1983, p. 2

30. Dickel, Dean. "Renovations Costly on 'This Old Courthouse,'" Telegraph Herald, May 12, 1994, p. 3

31. Kruse.

32. Dickel

33. Japsen, Bruce. "County Plans Courthouse Improvements," Telegraph Herald, February 5, 1993, p. 3A

34. "Fifth Floor Courthouse Renovation Included in 2018 Fiscal Year Budget," Online: http://kdth.radiodubuque.com/news/dubuque-tri-state-news/ February 15, 2017