History of the Morris County Courthouse

The historic Morris County Courthouse, the traditional seat of Morris County government and jurisprudence, was constructed in 1827. It is listed on the National and New Jersey Registers of Historic Places.

the Morris County Courthouse

Originally painted a gray-white color with brownstone trim, it is the third courthouse constructed to serve the county. Over the years additions and separate buildings have been added, both on the same tract and across Court Street.

The impressive structure belongs in the category of early American civil architecture and worthily represents a phase of building that has received less attention than it deserves. It is described on a marker erected in 1976 by the Morris County Heritage Commission as one of the finest examples of public buildings in the Federal style in New Jersey.

Over the years the courthouse has changed its exterior coat on two occasions, returning in the mid-1950’s to its facade of red brick trimmed with brownstone quarried in the neighborhood for the original building in 1827.

At an early period the entire exterior was painted gray, an action which present day students of architecture contend blotted out the articulation of the design created by the architects-builders, Joseph M. Lindsley of Morristown and Lewis Carter of Chatham.

Toward the end of the 19th century, this gray exterior cloak was removed in favor of the original red brick, which, in turn, was changed to white and cream in the mid-1920’s in preparation for the observance of the 100th anniversary of the building’s construction. This color remained until the 1950’s when it was sandblasted for the rededication of the courthouse in 1956.

The initial courthouse, a crude log structure, was built in 1755 near the center of what is now the Morristown Green. It served also as a jail until 1770 when the Freeholders (now County Commissioners) purchased from the Presbyterian Church for 5-pounds (English money) one acre on the north side of The Green and erected a one-story shingled structure 35 feet by 45 feet in size. At the time a well was dug and a well sweep added to draw water. The pillory stood nearby.

In 1776 a second story was added to this courthouse plus a cupola and bell. Nothing but ancient prints of the building remain. A rough hewn boulder, erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, marks the site. This courthouse and jail served until 1827 when the present brick building was completed. At the time it was one of the most handsome buildings in the state, its interior and exterior being finely furnished in the Greco-Roman style.

Need for these expanded facilities to house county offices, the court system and jail developed two years earlier when the Freeholders first met (July 7, 1825) to deliberate on the possibility of building a new courthouse and jail and the offices necessary for the use of the county.

The cornerstone for the structure, a simple brownstone block containing the date “1827”, was formally laid in ceremonies in July, 1826. The tract selected for the new courthouse was two blocks from The Green, where the original two courthouses stood. Located on Washington Street, between Court Street and Western Avenue, it was purchased by the Freeholders for the sum of $100 from James Wood and his wife.

In later years as the courthouse complex was expanded, the original tract of 1 and 20/100 acres was expanded to include first, the entire block, then the adjacent block between Court Street and Schuyler Place.

The courthouse, measuring 74.6 feet long by 44.6 feet wide, originally contained on the first floor, the Clerk’s, Surrogate’s and Sheriff’s offices, a fire-proof room for records, a parlor, and five rooms for debtors and criminals. In one end of the second story was located the courtroom, 42 feet square and 17 feet high.

The end of the building opposite the courtroom was divided into two stories, appropriated to the deliberations of the Grand Jury and Petit Jurors and family apartments. In the basement or cellar were three cells, with family apartments and a furnace for heating the prisons.

The cost of construction was listed in the Morristown Palladium of Liberty , a newspaper of the day, as $20,000.

Over the entrance of the courthouse in the pediment is a Statue of Justice (as pictured on the cover). She holds the Scales of Justice representing a balanced judicial system in her left hand and a sword symbolizing protection of individual rights in her right hand. Unlike many of her counterparts she is not blindfolded.

The Sheriff’s house, connected to the main courthouse when the entire structure was remodeled and enlarged in 1956, was built prior to the turn of the century. Early sketches of the courthouse show a side door and porch facing the Sheriff’s house through which prisoners sentenced to be hanged were taken to the gallows located behind the courthouse.

Prior to the Civil War a wing was added to the courthouse facing Court Street. At the time, it was separated from the courthouse by a jail yard. Both the Surrogate’s and Clerk’s offices, which were later connected to the courthouse by an addition, has a separate fireproof vault. On the second floor was located County Hall where the Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Grand Jury met.

Prior to its 100th anniversary in 1927 the courthouse faced and won a struggle to replace it with a strictly modern building with ample room, especially for safer and better storage of records. The movement to preserve the courthouse was headed by Justice Charles W. Parker, who advocated and saw authorized the construction of the needed Hall of Records, now the Ann Street annex to the courthouse.

Demands for space and facilities to meet the needs of a growing population during the first half of the 20th century resulted in numerous additions to the courthouse. In an attempt to integrate these various components into one unified complex, the Freeholders in 1954 authorized a new wing (on Western Avenue) which was dedicated in 1956.

At the dedication, the newly adopted Morris County Coat of Arms and the new yellow and white county flag bearing a reproduction of the coat of arms, were unveiled for public inspection.

Subsequent additions included the new Administration and Records Building across Court Street from the courthouse dedicated in 1989, encompassing the former Hall of Records built in 1969, the Ann Street annex, built in 1971, and purchase of the Washington Building in Schuyler Place in 1958.

The architecture of the courthouse has received plaudits from many sources. Included was a notation from the Supreme Court of Canada, which termed the structure “the finest courthouse that they saw on a tour of the United States”; an article in The American Court House magazine entitled A Judicial Facilities Study, and remarks by judges, newspaper writers and university spokesmen throughout the nation.

The building is composed of two principal stories plus attic and high basement, a tin gabled roof and four gable-end chimneys. Aside from preservation and growth, only minor changes, such as installation of electric lighting and central heating and air conditioning, have been made. The original fireplaces and chimneys still remain and are visible, although unused.

Unfortunately, all floor plans, early architects’ sketches, specifications and records from Freeholder minutes no longer exist.

The domed gold-leafed cupola (as pictured on the cover) representing the universal badge of official usage and public character, surmounts the roof directly above the front pediment. Its corners are defined by four sets of Ionic columns. Louvers on each side (painted a dark color when the building was painted gray and later cream) are enclosed within keyed arches.

Only the main facade remains completely detached. The east facade is joined to a modern addition on Court Street and the west facade to the Sheriff’s house, now used for court related offices and a press room, and the rear to another addition.

The only exterior features definitely not original are the double front entrance doors to the main lobby, and the weathervane, which was installed in the 1920’s and is modeled after the plow of the New Jersey State seal.

Frequently described as the gem of all the courthouse features is Court Room Number One, a room 42 feet 10 inches by 41 feet 8 inches, which retains most of its original architecture and atmosphere. Plaster walls have paneled wainscot which reaches to the bottom of the windows. A plaster cornice and richly modeled plaster ceiling-work inspired by honeysuckle and grapevine are important features.

Between the east wall’s two windows, window-height paneling incorporating four fluted Ionic pilasters forms a backdrop for the judge’s bench, which is supported by two fluted Ionic columns and finished with a palmetto frieze. Four additional windows punctuate the north wall. Those on the south wall were removed during additions to the structure.

The west wall supports a gallery which contains pews thought to be original. It is entered through a low doorway, which contains an early type lock.

The original staves used by bailiffs to maintain order are stacked in their racks on each side of the courtroom. In the room itself are the original round radiators. Although some restoration work was done in this courtroom in 1955 all of the important features appear to be original.

Early photographs and sketches of the courthouse, circa 1850, show it was originally surrounded by an iron fence erected atop a stone wall on the Court Street side, and at sidewalk level on Washington Street. By the turn of the century the fence had been removed and replaced with the present pudding stone wall.

Today, the courthouse built in 1827 for a county with a population of 22,000, serves 499,727 people in the county’s 39 municipalities. During the past 150 years it has been the scene of several famous cases, including the Antoine LeBlanc trial, Jeanette Lawrence trial, the Leroi Jones trial, and the Karen Ann Quinlan opinion.

The original gallows is still stored in the attic, although pieces of it have disappeared through the years, many to make gavels. The weights once used for the gallows which were not too many years ago pressed into service for door stops, have also disappeared.