Lafayette County Courthouse
The Lafayette County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Lafayette County Courthouse in Lexington, Missouri, designed by a local architect, William Daugherty, is a rectangular plan, two-story, white-painted brick building of "Classic Revival" design. Based on the classical temple form, it is pseudo-peripteral with a tetrastyle portico, a simple-ridge roof and a later wooden cupola and two-story brick addition. Located on the Lexington city square, it faces north at 1001 Main Street.
The north facade of the main structure is symmetrical with a large double-story portico supported by four non-fluted, ionic-order columns made of large sandstone drums hauled to the site from a quarry in Warrensburg. (Lexington Advertiser-News, March 5, 1962.) They are distributed with equal intercolumniation along the entire front of the porch. The portico is topped with a pediment and cornice with modillions and dentils which extends around the entire building. The front entranceway is centered at the first-story level and is flanked by one equidistant window to each side. Three evenly spaced windows repeat this arrangement at the second-story level.
The doorway has double doors with two transoms arranged one above the other and is surrounded by two pilasters, one to either side, which support an undecorated mock entablature.
The windows were originally double-hung sash with six-over-six panes, but now have been replaced with modern, aluminum-framed hopper windows. The windows still retain their simple lintels and sills.
Four large brick pilasters rising the entire height of the facade are placed in equal alternation with the windows. This system of alternating the pilasters and windows continues along both sides of the courthouse. The rear of the building is also symmetrically arranged. The central one-third of the south end of the building is extended about three feet to create a small two-story rectangular bay. A window pierces the bay at both the first- and second-story levels of its east and west sides. A window is also placed at the first-story level of the south end of the bay flanked by one equidistant window to either side. The same arrangement is repeated at the second-story level, and the system of alternating pilasters and windows is employed.
The structure supports a common pitched roof with sheet metal roofing. Five brick fireplace chimney stacks extend above the roof line on both the east and west sides, and a cupola with a clock and bell tops the portico.
William Daugherty's plans for the Lafayette County Courthouse did not include the cupola. It was added to the design later when the courthouse was already under construction. (County Court Record, Book #6, Lafayette County, p.115.)
It is clapboarded wood and consists of three levels. The lower level which now houses the mechanism for operating the cupola's clock and bell is essentially square in design but is given an octagonal feeling by the placement of pilasters at each of its four corners. This same system is continued at the second level where the octagonal sense is subtly increased. The cupola's second portion is smaller in area than the one below it, and instead of having the size of both the walls and the pilasters equally reduced, only the walls are significantly narrowed, thus de-emphasizing the squareness of the form. Each of the second level's four walls, which originally contained a narrow shuttered window flanked by a small ionic pilaster on each side, now shows a face of the clock which was installed in the tower by the citizens of Lexington in 1886.
The uppermost level is a strictly octagonal base with an octagonal domical vault, roofed with sheet metal. It encloses the original bell.
The Lafayette County Courthouse was originally surrounded by a stone and iron fence, but it was ordered torn down and the stones were sold in 1884. (County Court Record, Book #21, Lafayette County, p.200.)
Originally the first and second floors of the Lafayette County Courthouse were almost identical in plan with a central hall with offices to each side at the front of the building and a large courtroom of north/south orientation at the rear, the judge's bench being placed in front of the small bay in the back wall of the building. (Lexington Advertiser-News, March 5, 1962.) Through a series of repairs, additions and reconstructions in 1895, 1939, and 1968 respectively, this distribution of space has been greatly altered, particularly in the area of the two courtrooms.
The original courtroom on the first floor is now divided into three smaller rooms, a county court, the County Clerk's Office and a storage vault, but vestiges of the original room still remain. The room has its original stamped metal ceiling with its borders curving to the walls, and also its original wood wainscoting, although the fine painted border that once existed above the wainscot has disappeared.
The doors are flanked by a pilaster to either side supporting a simple entablature, an interior reflection of the main exterior entranceway. The old half-circular courtroom rail is still standing in the County Clerk's Office, and the semicircular walnut table made to fit it is now at the Oliver Anderson House, not far from the Lafayette County Courthouse. Additional pieces of the original walnut courtroom furniture remain scattered throughout the building.
The second level courtroom is still used for its original purpose but has been totally refurbished. The room has been reduced in size and the orientation of the court has been changed to an east/west direction. The original mansard ceiling of tin is covered with acoustical tile and the old walls and doorways have been replaced.
A dog-leg stair to the left of the front central hall connects the two floors.
In 1854 a separate office building was erected on the east lawn of the courthouse. It was a single story brick building that reflected the architecture of the main structure in a small central portico supported by columns and decorated with engaged pilasters. At the turn of the century, this building was remedied into a two-story structure, and in 1939 an addition was constructed on the rear of the building and connected to the courthouse. At this time the entire exterior of the building was reworked to copy the Classic Revival style of the court house and appear as a more integrated part of it.
The Lafayette County Courthouse in Lexington, Missouri, is significant as a fine example of antebellum architecture of the "Classic Revival" design. It has additional significance as one of the oldest continually used courthouses in the state of Missouri.
The original plans for the Lafayette County Courthouse exhibit some of the purest American Classic Revival thought in Missouri. In design, the structure cautiously remains within the established rules of classical-temple form. There is a portico across the entire front and a roof ridge running from front to back. The roof is low of pitch and originally void of any projections. All the windows and doors are correctly trabeated. The arch, which has no place in Greek-temple architecture, is carefully avoided. The wall surfaces are as smooth as brick allows and the structure in painted the traditional white.
The present Lafayette County Courthouse is the third such structure constructed by the county, yet it is one of the oldest continually used courthouses in the state. Only the center section of the Jackson County Courthouse in Independence, Missouri, is older. The first Lafayette County Courthouse at Lexington, built in 1825, served the county for only a short period of years. Because of its poor construction, the County Court replaced this structure in 1832. With the movement of Lexington's commercial and residential districts away from the original town site towards the Missouri River in the 1840's, the county decided to move the site of the courthouse to the new center of the town's activity. (William H. Chiles, History of Lafayette County, 1923 edition; History of Lafayette County, Mo., 1881, p.210.)
The County Court meeting on March 15, 1847, ordered that "a New Court-House be erected on the public square in the city of Lexington...and that Silas Silver, John Carton and Robert Aull be appointed Commissioners on the part of the county to contract for and superintend the building of the same." (County Court Record, Book #6, Lafayette County, p.92.) The Commissioner selected the plans of William Daugherty, a local architect, and construction of the $12,000 structure began promptly. In October, 1847 the Lafayette County Court awarded a $840 contract to Elijah Littlejohn and Alexander McHaddin for the building of a cupola on the newly completed courthouse. (County Court Record, Book #6, Lafayette County, p.115.)
The Lafayette County Courthouse is well known for a cannon ball lodged in one of the large columns of the building's north side. This occurred during the Battle of Lexington which was fought between Federal and Missouri State Guard forces on September 18-20, 1861. But more importantly, the Lafayette County Courthouse is known throughout Missouri for its distinctive architecture and age.
Chiles, William H. History of Lafayette County. Lexington: Privately Printed, 1928.
History of Lafayette County, Mo. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Co., 1881.
Lafayette County Court Record Books. Number 6 (1847), Number 25 (1895).
Tallmadge, T.E. The Story of Architecture In America. New York: n.d.
Whiffen, Marcus. American Architecture Since 1780. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1969.
† H. Roger Grant, Ph.D., Missouri State Park Board, State Historical Survey and Planning Office, Lafayette County Courthouse, Lexington, MO, nomination document, 1970, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.