We love getting off of the expressway and taking the slow way home, stopping to check out whatever strikes us as interesting, which is how we discovered this classically beautiful courthouse in Ithaca, Michigan.
Gratiot County is pretty much in the center of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, surrounded by mid-Michigan farm country.
Settlers organized Gratiot County in the mid-1800s and named it for General Charles Gratiot, who was responsible for building Fort Gratiot at Port Huron in 1814 according to the marker in front of the courthouse.
The city of Ithaca became the county seat in 1856, although the nearby city of Alma later challenged Ithaca for that designation.
With Ithaca's claim as the county seat settled, the county contracted with Michigan architect Claire Allen to design a new courthouse in 1902.
Allen already had a history as a builder or architect for public buildings throughout the state, and the list of Michigan county courthouses built or designed by Allen eventually also included those in Jackson, Ionia, Hillsdale, Van Buren, and Shiawassee counties.
Allen was born in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1853 (and sadly, our own Oakland County courthouse is a drab 1960s era building, rather than a building by Oakland County-born Allen).
His family, reportedly descended from Ethan Allen and Edgar Allen Poe, lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when Claire was a young child, moving to a farm in Ionia, Michigan when Claire was 11 years old.
Claire became fascinated with building and architecture as a young man, beginning to design buildings by the age of 18 and building the Allen family home himself when he was 21.
By 1890, several wealthy men in Jackson, Michigan, asked him to establish an architectural office in that city. Allen worked from his Jackson office for the next 52 years, until his death in 1942 at the age of 89.
Allen designed a two-and-one-half-story building in the Neoclassical Revival style for Gratiot County. The ornate style was a revival of the Classical style, based on architectural structures and elements from Greek and Roman antiquity and popularized by the stunning White City at the Columbian Exposition at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.
The Gratiot County courthouse features an exposed half basement, a rotunda with a clock tower and belfry, and exterior details like ornate columns at the front entrance and agriculture-themed details acknowledging the county's farming industry with such crops as sugar beets, corn, grain, and beans, as well as beef cattle and dairy farms. The building, sheathed in beige sandstone, cost $75,000 to build at the time.
The courthouse is still in use today for county offices and trials.
The building earned a spot on Michigan's register of historic places in 1957, a Michigan historical marker in 1958, and a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
In 1940, when someone from the University of Michigan School of Architecture interviewed Allen, he said he designed so many houses and buildings over the years that he couldn't remember or count all of them.
His work includes several buildings in Chelsea, Michigan, including that town's iconic Clock Tower and Welfare Building (a recreational facility for a stove company). You can read a bit about those buildings and actor Jeff Daniels' hometown in my story, Chelsea, Michigan maintains small-town charm while developing as a Midwestern arts center.
Interested in finding out more about Michigan's courthouse buildings or Claire Allen's other buildings in the state? Check out Michigan's County Courthouses by John Fedynsky or Buildings of Michigan by Kathryn Bishop Eckert.
Curious about The White City? Check out The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson, a fascinating account of the building of the White City, famed architect Daniel Burnham, and the serial killer who bedeviled Chicago during the 1893 World's Fair.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved