Michigan's oldest county courthouse still in continuous operation at Sault Ste. Marie in Chippewa County harkens back to the area's pre-statehood history when Reverend Abel Bingham arrived at Sault Ste. Marie as an American Baptist Church missionary in the 1820s.
Sault Ste. Marie already enjoyed a long history before Abel's arrival as home to the first European settlement in Michigan when Territorial Governor Lewis Cass established the county, named for its Native Ojibwa people, carved out of the eastern end of the state's vast Upper Peninsula, in 1826.
A small marker on the courthouse lawn marks the spot where Reverend Bingham established his mission, a temperance society and a school as forerunners to the First Baptist Church of Sault Ste. Marie founded in 1855.
In the late 1870s, Detroit architect John Scott won one of the first big commissions of his career and began work on a three-story Second Empire-style courthouse building with the help of his architect father, William.
John's design incorporated local materials like limestone from nearby Drummond Island and sandstone extracted from a local canal. The sturdy rectangular building had two-foot-thick walls with a contrasting cut-stone banded design.
The building also featured a clock and bell tower rising 80 feet from the ground level and a slate-tiled mansard roof.
The original construction completed in 1877 cost $20,000
Local dignitaries gathered to dedicate the building and contribute items for inclusion in the building's cornerstone, which construction workers opened during the building's first big renovation in 1904.
Marquette architect R.C. Sweat designed the 1904 rear addition that transformed the simple rectangular building into a larger L-shaped structure.
The 1904 renovation and addition cost $25,000, seeing changes like replacing the heavy and expensive slate tiles with asphalt shingles, removing a wrought-iron widow's walk from around the top of the building and adding and changing some of the windows.
One of the most interesting events during this renovation was the opening of the time capsule placed in the building's cornerstone during its 1877 construction.
The time capsule included bonds dated 1876, photographs, business cards from elected officials of that time, local newspapers, coins and a two-ounce bottle of champagne. The champagne bottle, carefully corked and sealed with wax, still managed to leak and give the paper items a bad odor. Workers resealed the items, added a few more items like local newspapers from 1904, and re-interred the whole batch of items until the cornerstone's re-opening in a 1989 restoration, when workers placed the time capsule items on display in the courthouse.
A 1930s addition expanded the Treasurer's office and added some new doorways. Workers tried to remain fairly true to the original design and 1904 additions, but the building's interior became a somewhat confusing muddle of staircases sometimes leading to empty rooms or between unrelated sections of the building.
Even as the building earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, there were calls to demolish it and erect a new courthouse in its place.
Preservationists prevailed, first winning a $200,000 Michigan Equity Grant to begin work on an ambitious renovation plan in 1986, then raising donations and obtaining approval for a tax levy to support a $1.2 million restoration to happen in 1989.
Work proceeded guided by using old photographs and architectural plans to restore some of the building's original features.
Inside, workers removed multiple layers of paint to reveal original oak finishes on the woodwork and some original furniture in the courtroom. They also removed a ceiling in the main courtroom to reveal its original skylight. The work also restored vintage vaults on the first floor, chair-rail-height wainscoting on the walls, molded tin ceilings, ornate metal work on the radiators and cast-iron capitals on two major pillars in the building.
Much of the interior renovation expense came with installing an elevator and other modifications to meet modern safety and barrier-free standards.
One of the most visible exterior renovations came with the restoration of the clock face on the building's tower and the restoration of the Lady of Justice statue in the tower over the building's third floor.
Leno Pianosi served as the Chairman of the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners at the time of the renovation, but he also happened to be a professional wood carver and long-time supporter of preserving the courthouse building.
Want to learn more about beautiful buildings like the Chippewa County courthouse? Check out Michigan's County Courthouses by John Fedynsky.
© Dominique King 2015 All rights reserved