Looking at the beautifully restored 167-year-old courthouse in Lapeer, Michigan, it's difficult to believe that there were those who wanted to demolish it in order to build a parking lot two dozen years ago.
Fortunately, there were plenty of other folks in this southeastern Michigan community who appreciated the building's history and envisioned a day when the dilapidated old courthouse could again become one of the county's historical and architectural gems.
The Lapeer County Courthouse is the oldest courthouse still in use in Michigan, according to the historical marker on the building's front lawn.
Territorial Governor Lewis Cass set off Lapeer County in 1822, so it pre-dates Michigan's 1837 acceptance as the nation's 26th state.
Popular legend has it that Lapeer was a French translation of an Indian name for the southern branch of the Flint River, which ran a rocky course through the area. "La Pierre" means "The Stone" in French, and "Lapeer" is an English translation of the phrase.
Other stories about the name's origin say Lapeer's name came from a similarly named community in New York (where most of the area's early settlers lived prior to arriving in Michigan) or that it was a phonetic rendition of a phrase from the area's French missionaries ("La Pere" is French for "The Father").
Alvin N. Hart was one of the area's first settlers, arriving in 1831. He platted the village of Lapeer in 1833, and the area officially organized as an independent county in 1835.
Jonathon R. White arrived in Lapeer shortly after Hart in 1831.
The men established the neighboring communities of Lapeer and Whitesville, and the Democrat Hart and Whig White vied to establish the county seat in their communities.
The Whigs and White won by offering to build a free (to the county) courthouse in Whitesville. White saw his offer accepted before Hart could file his own competing offer to build a courthouse.
White built the county's first courthouse in 1839.
Hart didn't give up so easily, though.
Hart became a state legislator in 1843, representing Lapeer, Oakland, Genesee, Shiawassee, Tuscola and Saginaw counties, as well as Michigan's entire Upper Peninsula.
In 1845, Hart managed to get a bill introduced in the State House to establish the village of Lapeer as the county seat and home to the courthouse. The Whigs objected while the bill somehow sped through both houses of the state legislature and became law.
The county agreed to pay Hart $1 per year in rent for the building in 1846 and eventually purchased the courthouse from Hart for $3,000 in 1853.
The first business conducted at the new courthouse was a naturalization ceremony in 1847, presided over by the newly elected Judge Alvin Hart.
Meanwhile, the Whitesville courthouse became a school.
Despite its disputed beginnings, Hart's Greek Revival-style courthouse remained basically unchanged throughout the years.
The two-story building of native white pine sits on a raised foundation. A square tower, topped with a gold dome, is to the rear of the building. Fluted Doric columns and a triangular pediment define the building's large front portico.
The courthouse went on the listing of Michigan's State Historic Sites in 1957 and earned a place on the National Register of Historical Places in 1971.
The building's future was in doubt during the 1990s as the community struggled to raise the money necessary to restore the building to its former glory.
A 20-year effort ensued to raise money for a $1.5 million restoration. The work took place in three phases to restore the exterior, restore the interior and to update things like the heating, cooling and electrical systems, as well as improve accessibility features like public bathrooms and installing an elevator to the courtroom on the building's second floor.
The courthouse wasn't open when we visited, but I managed to peek into the windows and see some of the displays of the Lapeer County Historical Society on the first floor.
Want to learn more about Lapeer? Check out The Lapeer Area (Images of America) by Catherine Ulrich Brakefield.
Politics during the 1830s and 1840s could be a particularly rough-and-tumble affair as Michigan became a state. Check out The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics by Don Farber for the fascinating tale of the politics of that time and the political fighting between the Whigs and the Democrats.
© Dominique King 2013 All rights reserved