Fulton County Courthouse
The Fulton County Courthouse (223 West Main Street) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Fulton County Courthouse is a late Georgian public building located on an open lot with trees and grassy open spaces. Situated at the corner of North William and West Main Streets in the center of Johnstown, it forms part of a courthouse complex with a small addition dating from around 1900 at the rear (west) connecting it to a later L-shaped county office building which is free-standing along the north side of the courthouse. Immediately across the street from the courthouse on the south, are business blocks and across the street from its main (east) entrance is a public parking lot with a public park behind it.
The scale of the building reflects its late eighteenth century date and its frontier setting. It is a one and one half story building three bays wide on the sides and five bays wide on the front elevation with a one bay central projecting enclosed entrance porch. The rectangular building has masonry load bearing walls resting on a low stone foundation. The foundations of the one story entrance porch which was added after 1872 is lower than that of the main block which was constructed in 1772-1773.
An interesting feature of this vernacular civic building is its roofline. The main block has a bellcast gable roof with a pronounced kicked. This style of roof often found on Georgian public buildings gives a lightness to the otherwise heavy proportions of the building. Located on the front slope of the roof is an inside chimney. Crowning the roof is a cupola which apparently dates from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. It is an addition which is not well integrated proportionally with the main block and which causes the building to appear top heavy. The awkward transition between the cupola which is octagonal in plan and its square base is only partially disguised by a railing. On each side of the cupola is a louvered opening surrounded by wood trim terminated by a semicircular arch with keystone. Under the projecting eaves of the cupola's roof are modillions and rising from its copper roof is a weather vane. In the cupola is an iron triangle used to announce sessions at court which is believed to have been used during the first session on September 8, 1772. The main roof and cupola were extensively repaired in the 1930's.
Reflecting the Georgian style, the main block has a uniform proportional system and symmetrically arranged openings in the brick walls laid in Flemish bond. Over the windows are brick jack arches and under them are stone lugsills. Their architrave trim probably dates from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The original sash was replaced in the late nineteenth century by twelve over one lights. In the boxed pediment of the gable end east facade is a semicircular fanlight. There is a modillion cornice with dentils on the bed moulding.
Reflecting its late 19th century date of construction the proportions of the cornice of the entrance porch are different than those of the cornice of the main block. The modillion blocks are smaller and there is a larger bed moulding between the modillion band and the dentil band. Supporting the overhanging roof of the porch are free standing piers with shafts on the corners. These piers, an expression of late nineteenth century exuberance, contrast with the sedate Georgian cornice of the main block.
The entrance porch has one window with six over one lights on each side and a pair of three panel doors on the east elevation. Over these doors are a semicircular fanlight and an arched, hood moulding.
The interior, remodeled over the years, has not retained much of its original woodwork. The judge's bench and railing probably date from 1867. In that year new lighting, heating, and ventilating systems were installed. Around 1950, new seats were added. In the nineteenth century, before the porch was added, the interior was divided into two rooms with a small vestibule with side doors opening on the courtroom. It presently has a one room plan. Although it has lost its original decorative features, this courtroom retains the intimate scale associated with Georgian interiors.
Since its construction in 1772-1773, the Fulton County Courthouse in Johnstown has occupied an important place in New York State history. It has served as the judicial seat of Tryon County, of Montgomery County, and since 1838 of Fulton County. Its historical prominence comes from its association with Sir William Johnson and events and persons connected with judicial activities which took place there. Architecturally, it is significant as the oldest existing courthouse in New York State — a Georgian civic building with the changes that would be expected over the years.
Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Colonies of British America and a Major General of the colonial forces was an important military figure in the French and Indian War and played an influential role in the early settlement of New York State. He acquired title to the Kingsborough Patent and in 1762, built Johnson Hall at Johnstown. At this time the seat of his estate was part of Albany County. Due to Johnson's initiative, Albany County was divided into Albany, Charlotte, and Tryon Counties on March 12, 1772. In the law establishing Tryon County the justices of the new county were given power to raise a sum "not exceeding one thousand pounds for the pur [pose] of erecting a Goal and Courthouse." Johnson used his influence to have Johnstown chosen as the new county seat. Although Johnstown was not chosen as the site of the county's government until May 10, 1772 Johnson was able to write Hugh Wallace on May 21, 1772 that "I am now carrying on a handsome building intended for a Court House towards which I shall contribute £500 pounds."
Samuel Fuller of Schenectady, the architect of Johnson Hall, is supposed to have designed the courthouse. A man named Bennet was in charge of details of construction. After construction was underway, Zephaniah Bachellor, a carpenter from Boston, joined the project. Bricks were made on the neighboring farm belonging to Jacob Yost. On June 26, 1772 the cornerstone was laid in the presence of Governor Tryon, Sir William Johnson, and others.
On September 8, 1772 the first court was convened with Guy Johnson, Sir William's son-in-law, presiding. It is probable that at the time of the first session the courthouse and jail were not completed. In 1773, six hundred pounds were made available for their construction and earlier on December 23, 1772 Hugh Wallace criticized their plan writing "I think your Goal might have been under the Courthouse for to save Expence for sometime, as is done in all the Countys, tho' no doubt its best to be otherwise." By June 15, 1773 it is probable that the courthouse was completed as Johnson wrote, "the New Church, Court House & Goal are very decent buildings."
Tryon County was named for Sir William Tryon, the last Royal Governor of New York. On April 2, 1784 its name was changed to Montgomery County in honor of General Richard Montgomery, the Revolutionary War hero who lost his life at the Battle of Quebec. Johnstown remained the county seat.
In 1812, the courthouse was the place of the Southwick trial. Aaron Burr defended Southwick and won his acquittal although it was expected that Burr would be greeted with hostility in what was still regarded as Hamilton territory.
In 1836, changed economic conditions resulting from the opening of the Erie Canal caused the Montgomery county seat to be moved to Fonda. Public disapproval of this change led the legislature to divide the county two years later. The new county resulting from the split was named Fulton after Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat. Johnstown became Fulton's county seat and the old courthouse which has been purchased by private individuals was returned to county ownership and resumed its original function. Today it continues to serve as Fulton County's judicial seat.
Notable legal figures are associated with the courthouse including Chancellor Kent, Alexander Hamilton, Abenezer Foote, Thomas Addis Emmett, Abraham Van Vechten, and Judge Daniel Cady, the father of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
During the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century, the building was crowned by a cupola and after 1872 a centennial anniversary was held during which Horatio Seymour spoke. The cornerstone was relaid and a stone plaque inscribed "erected 1772" placed in the front gable. About 1900, a large addition was added to the rear which allowed the original building to retain its usefulness while retaining its one room floor plan. Although these later additions alter the Georgian sense of discipline, they are a vital part of the continuing history of the building.
Beers, F. W. & Co. Montgomery and Fulton Counties. New York, 1878.
Flick, Alexander C. (ed.) The Papers of Sir William Johnson. Albany: The University of New York, 1933-1965, VIII, x, 237, 263, 311, 316, 328-329, 332, 357, 360, 369, 385-386, 395, 413, 436, 477, 492, 543, 614, 665, 703, 710, 823, 877, 1207, 1214; XII, 933, 939, 958, 982, 984-985.
Fulton County Publicity. "Fulton County Court House, Johnstown, New York." Johnstown: Board of Supervisors, N.d.
Johnson, Herbert A. Letter to T. Robins Brown. 18 January 1972.
Johnstown Chamber of Commerce. "Johnstown and Fulton County Welcome You." N.d.
Palmer, Robert Morris. Historical Fulton County, New York. Johnstown: Fulton County Publicity, N.D.
_________, Notes about Fulton County Courthouse. January 1972. (Handwritten).
Reid, W. Max. The Mohawk Valley. New York: G.P. Putnam's, 1901, p.206.
Vrooman, John J. Forts and Firesides of the Mohawk County, New York. Johnstown: Baronet Litho, 1951, pp.146-150.
Work Progress Administration. New York: A Guide to the Empire State. American Guide Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962, p.489.
Files of the New York State Historic Trust.
†Brown, T. Robins, New York State Historic Trust, Fulton County Courthouse (Tryon County Courthouse), nomination document, 1972, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.