In the first year of the project—the twelve months leading to the sesqui-centennial on October 25th, 2007—my friend Howard Tabor wrote a weekly series of columns for The Plantagenet about the history of his community. “A few figs from thistles…”, his regular by-lined human interest column, gave way to an exploration of the environment he’d known all his life—though, perhaps, in a superficial way. So, one day on his walk to work (Howard always walks), he took a fairly roundabout path from his apartment to the office, going to the far side of the courthouse (from where he lives) and noticing with fresh eyes The Obelisk that marks entry to town from the west. I’m proud—which is to say that Howard is proud—of that opening gambit: That organic beginning set the tone for most of what has followed. Somewhere in the low numbers of blog entries I’m certain that column was reproduced.
To put an obelisk on the courthouse square, of course, requires that a courthouse be there as well. In fact, it necessitated imagining a series of courthouses to accommodate the growth of county government, a process that, in the current political rhetoric, may have reversed itself until government itself becomes a distant memory. It is evil, after all. That first courthouse of the Civil War years is a vague image in my mind even yet. But its worthy successor, on the other hand, is (or was) a bold statement of civic pride in the era of the Robber Barons. Not incidentally, the second Fennimore county courthouse, was also an exercise in channeling, just like the public library design.
Growing up in Chicago, I saw at an early age many buildings by two of what became my list of architectural favorites—my personal Top Ten. Even now, more than forty years later, that list remains largely unaltered. Oh, yes, one or two are displaced now and then, but some of them return for repeat engagements, sure in my assessment that they were as good as I’d thought in the first place. [My friend Richard Kenyon and I compare our respective lists each year or so and are pleasantly surprised to find many similarities. Perhaps that’s why we’re friends.]
One name that has risen in rank is William Halsey Wood, one of the hemi-demi-semi-gods in the pantheon of architectural talent, in my humble estimation. Wood has been a research topic of mine for ten years or so, and I hope to have a manuscript on his unjustly-ignored career under way very soon. It had better be; I don’t have that much time or energy remaining. For a courthouse of the 80s, of course, the great H.H. Richardson would be an obvious choice; he did a large number of public buildings, some of them for government, and he worked as far west as Cincinnati, Chicago and St Louis. As far as I was concerned, Richardson was fair game. But then came Wood.
Those of you who have to deal with me “live” will know my passion for William Halsey Wood. Start me rambling on about him and I’m unlikely to stop—me being the “Ted Cruz” of architectural history. So, not only was I a Wood enthusiast, but he also offered the interesting aspect in that, to my knowledge, Wood had never designed a government building. Like Louis Sullivan, who had never designed a Carnegie or any other library, Wood was a courthouse virgin; I was free (required, even) to imagine his solution to an unfamiliar building type by intuiting his approach through the extensive list of his executed work—mostly churches. To give you an idea of his characteristics, take a look at the unbuilt design for a very large, institutionally large, Carnegie library proposed for Allegheny City, across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh but now part of that city. This is as close I was likely to get to genuine applicable influence—the stuff design decisions are made of.
In one of those happy fits of possession that overcome me now and again, the second Fennimore courthouse emerged one evening—at least as a plan, the design mode I stay in far too long. Tightly knit and rigorous, it draws from some of Richardson’s tendencies as well as those of Wood that I had begin to discern. Elevations and 3-D representations came soon after. The materials have shifted somewhat between granite and brick, and now it is most likely a combination of the two. I’m pleased with the result and wouldn’t be ashamed to have had it built and stumbled upon my architectural historians of that future—if only I’d lived 125 years ago.
I’m thinking of the courthouse these days as an image for a printmaking class from Kent Kaplinger and I need bring this design to enough completion that it could be a monoprint or an etching. Wish me well.