Courthouse has served county well for more than century

Douglas County clerk Jamie Shew, seated at far right, and Keith Clark, deputy clerk, standing, work inside the historic courtroom in the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Mass. The courtroom maintains the grandeur of its period but is no longer used for regular trials. This stitched panorama photograph is taken from the public entrance doors to the courtroom chambers on the north wall.

Walk into a Douglas County courtroom today and you might think you are in a small university lecture room or a private theater.

But walk into the second-floor courtroom in the century-old Douglas County Courthouse and you might think you are on the set where movies such as “Inherit the Wind” or the 1950s “Perry Mason” TV shows were filmed.

“‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ comes to mind,” said Ralph King, who as county attorney in the 1960s prosecuted cases there.

The courthouse, 1100 Mass., is undergoing a $1.2 million restoration of its outer limestone walls. Its courtroom has seen its share of restoration and renovation over the years but it looks basically the same as it has for decades. There are no plans to do any more work there, County Administrator Craig Weinaug said.

105 years of history

Weinaug sees the courtroom in the same historical sense as the building’s worn marble stairway steps.

“They are uneven, and that’s because of the hundreds of thousands of lawyers, petitioners, commissioners and even a couple of county administrators who have walked up those steps for 105 years,” he said.

The courtroom still has the original judge’s dais, wooden railings and audience pews. At some point, possibly during the 1940s, most of the wood was changed to a dark color, Weinaug said. Several years ago, carpeting and tile were taken up to expose the original wood floor. The chandeliers, while elegant, are not original. Painting that was done during the past 20 years highlighted the artistic architectural details of the ceiling. Stained-glass windows are original.

And there are two jury boxes. One is on the floor complete with leather seats. The other – the original – is up high in a box that looks out over the courtroom. The original wooden chairs are still there.

“Sometime, I’m not sure when, the jury box was moved down to the floor, probably because it was too hot up there,” Weinaug said.

The courtroom is used mostly for county commission meetings now. The nearby Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, built in the mid-1970s, is where the main courtrooms are. Occasionally the Kansas Court of Appeals meets in the old courtroom as does a workers compensation court. The room has been outfitted with modern electronics for showing slides and other information on a roll-down screen.

Modern courtrooms are more efficient and comfortable, said King, the former county attorney who also presided as a district judge in the judicial center.

But retired Kansas Supreme Court Justice Fred Six said they are not as ornate as the older courtrooms and courthouses built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because there are budget constraints when it comes to constructing public buildings.

“When the old courthouses were built, each community put a little bit of its pride into it,” said Six, of Lawrence. “They’d have a stonemason and a master carpenter building it.”

A ‘symbolic place’

The old courtroom had plenty of drawbacks. Judges had little privacy and shared the public restroom with jurors and witnesses. Before air conditioning it was hot, even with the windows open, King and Six said. And sometimes birds flew in the open windows.

“Try talking to a jury with a bird flying around,” Six said. “You’ve lost all 12 of them and the judge, too. Everybody is concerned with getting the bird out.”

In the 1960s, window air conditioners were installed but were noisy and made it difficult to hear, King said.

The courthouse has always served as a community center, Weinaug said. War protesters today still gather at the courthouse.

“In my mind, the county courthouse is kind of a symbolic place where people come and express their views,” he said.

It also served the public in other ways before there was television and the Internet. “When you had a good criminal trial or the bank got sued, people came to get a little bit of entertainment,” Six said.

“It was a good courtroom for its time,” King said. “It had a majesty to it.”