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Niagara County Courthouse


The Niagara County Courthouse and County Clerk's Office (175 Hawley Street and 139 Niagara Street) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Text below was selected and adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Niagara County Courthouse and County Clerk's Office complex is located at the western end of the business district in the city of Lockport. Sited amidst a neighborhood that is largely residential, the complex is only two blocks west of Locks 34 and 35 of the Erie Canal. The two buildings are located on Hawley Street, north and south of Niagara Street. The Niagara County Courthouse is south of Niagara and is oriented to the east, toward Hawley Street, while the Niagara County Clerk's Office (now the Niagara County Civil Defense building) is north of Niagara and faces south towards the courthouse. The two buildings are the sole survivors of a county administrative complex that developed around the intersection of Hawley and Niagara between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and included such buildings as the original Niagara County Courthouse, the county jail and the jail keeper's residence. One more county building, the Nelson Building, is located on the east side of Hawley Street. The latter is a contemporary building and is not included in the nomination.

Niagara County Courthouse

The Niagara County Courthouse is a monumental limestone civic building constructed between 1886 and 1955. It is L-shaped, with its principal elevation oriented to the east, on Hawley Street, and secondary elevations facing Niagara Street and Park Avenue. The Niagara County Courthouse was constructed in three stages. The original building, dating to 1886, was a nine-bay by four-bay rectangle oriented north, toward Niagara Street. The focus of the design was a projecting multi-stage entrance tower crowned by a statue of Justice. In 1915-17, a substantial addition was constructed on the south, doubling the size of the courthouse. As part of this building program, the entire orientation of the building was shifted to the west, toward Hawley Street, and a monumental entrance pavilion was constructed on the west elevation. Despite the size and scale of this addition, and with the exception of the new entrance pavilion, the exterior of the 1915-17 Niagara County Courthouse replicated the design and materials of the original building. Although the tower and statue were removed, the original north entrance was retained and incorporated into the new design. The floor plan and interior finishes of the 1886 building are not known; however, it appears that most, if not all of the original interior was replaced in the 1915-17 remodeling, which established a symmetrical plan around a new, large central rotunda. Finally, in 1955-58, the northwest corner of the building was removed (including the original 1886 entrance) and a substantial three-story rectangular wing was added, extending to the west, perpendicular to the main block. This final, non-historic 1955 addition is of steel frame construction with glass curtain walls and laminated porcelain panels.

As it exists today, the historic section of the Niagara County Courthouse is two stories tall above a water table. Constructed of random ashlar rusticated limestone blocks, the building is surmounted by a slate-shingled mansard roof with pressed metal finials on each corner and a three-stage dome. Oeil-de-boeuf dormers project from the north end of the roof. Corner pilasters with quoins frame each elevation. There is a molded pressed metal cornice with modillions and a molded stone band course dividing the first and second stories. Fenestration is regular and symmetrical, consisting of tall rectangular and round-arched openings containing double-hung metal sash, which replaced the original wooden sash in 1987. Lintels and sills on the primary elevations are of bush-hammered limestone.

The facade is organized around a monumental, projecting, central entrance pavilion that extends the full height of the building. The base of this feature, at the first floor level, is defined by three sets of round-arched double doors within round-arched enframements. Access to these doors is provided by a cut-stone stoop. Four cast-iron lamps with single globe luminaries flank each pair of doors. Above the base, six fluted columns and two piers in antis with Ionic capitals support a pediment. Upper story windows in the pavilion feature heavy stone pedimented lintels.

Except for the replacement of the sash, there have been no significant changes to the exterior of the building since 1955. Other than those noted above, the only other alterations affected the site. Some elements of the 1917 landscaping, including a circular entrance drive, have been removed, and additional parking areas have been created.

The interior plan of the courthouse is generally intact to 1917, with the exception of the northeast corner, which was replaced in 1955. However, some of the interior spaces have been partitioned and/or modified over time to accommodate changes in the building's function.

The interior plan is symmetrically oriented around a central three-story rotunda. The main block of the building is divided on each floor into office spaces on the north side and large public spaces (courtroom and legislative chamber) on the south. The 1955 addition is divided into small office and storage spaces.

The main stairhall is located at the front of the building, immediately inside the entrance. This space is defined by a pair of curved staircases with cast-iron balusters in a floral motif. The rotunda, located just behind the stairhall, is one of the most important elements in the spatial concept of the building. This three-story space conceptually links the legislative chambers, where the laws are made, with the courtroom, where they are enforced. The dome that terminates the rotunda links these spaces with the community.

The first floor of the rotunda is characterized by a mosaic tile floor with a central seal depicting Niagara Falls and bearing the words "Niagara County" and City of Lockport." The second floor of the rotunda is decorated with portraits of four historically significant Niagara County judges, each within an elaborate antique gold frame. Above this, the interior of the dome and the pendentives supporting it have been painted a dark color. The dome's oculus, composed of prism glass held by an iron frame, has been sealed and painted out completely due to leakage and water damage to the surrounding walls. At the back of the rotunda is the connector to the 1955 addition. On the first floor, this lobby is faced with a marble veneer designed to harmonize with the faux marble wainscot and door enframements of the rotunda. The wainscot was subsequently removed during a 1996 renovation. The lobby also encloses a contemporary steel staircase and elevators serving both the original courthouse and the addition.

The south wing of the original building is defined by the legislative chambers on the first floor and the two-story main courtroom above. Although the legislative chambers retains its original spatial configuration, much of its original detailing has been lost to unsympathetic alterations over the years, including a suspended acoustic tile ceiling. Surviving features in the chambers include original door and window frames. The main courtroom retains a higher degree of integrity, even through some of the original finishes have been obscured by modern materials and the original orientation has been reversed.

Niagara County Clerk's Office

The former Niagara County Clerk's Office is a one-story limestone office building above a raised basement. This building was constructed in two stages. As built in 1856, the building was three bays wide with a center entrance surmounted by a pyramidal roof. In 1917, concurrent with the Niagara County Courthouse renovation project, the Niagara County Clerk's Office was expanded with a large L-shaped addition that wrapped around the south (front) and west elevations of the building. The original roof was replaced with a hip roof crowned by a pyramidal dome with a glass skylight, and the new main entrance was marked by a large-scale, projecting, pedimented entrance pavilion. The expanded building is similar in style to the original and uses some of the same materials. Lintels and sills are stone and there is a pressed metal cornice. The original slate roof has been replaced with asphalt shingles. Windows feature multi-paned double-hung sash. The interior was completely redesigned in 1917. The plan is organized around a central rotunda, which provides access to the offices located around the perimeter. Interior trim is characterized by Neoclassical motifs and appears to date to 1917. There have been a number of alterations over time to adapt the building for new uses; however, the overall integrity of design and materials remains high.

Significance

Summary

The Niagara County Courthouse and County Clerk's Office Complex is significant under criterion C as a distinctive pair of civic buildings constructed in stages between the mid-nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Each building embodies features characteristic of its several design stages; yet, individually and together the buildings present a coherent design statement most representative of the final historic design phase in 1917. Under the latter building program, the two buildings received an overlay of complementary features in the Neoclassical style, the preferred style for civic architecture in this period.

The Niagara County Courthouse was originally constructed in 1886 in the Second Empire style. Characteristic features include the horizontal division into pavilions, mansard roof and the original projecting multi-stage entrance tower. The original design was the work of M. E. Beebe and Sons, a prominent Buffalo firm. In 1915-1917, the building was doubled in size and its primary elevation was shifted from the north to the west elevation. The enlarged building replicated the original Niagara County Courthouse in materials and design; however, the new monumental temple-front entrance pavilion clearly placed the remodeled building within the context of early twentieth century Neoclassically inspired civic architecture. This theme was continued on the interior, with a completely new floor plan oriented around a large, central rotunda. The architect responsible for this phase of construction was Chester R. Phelps of Niagara Falls. Finally, in 1955, the building received a third major addition, designed by the firm of Cannon, Thiele, Betz and Cannon. Although this wing, of steel frame and curtain wall construction, is non-historic, it is a typical example of its period and type, and it completes the design and functional history of the building.

The former Niagara County Clerk's Office was built in 1856 in a classical mode. The original small building was enlarged in 1917, also by Chester Phelps, as part of the Niagara County Courthouse renovation project. As in his enlargement of the courthouse, Phelps replicated the original design of the clerk's office and added a number of Neoclassical features, including the pedimented entrance pavilion and central dome and the interior plan, which is symmetrically organized around a rotunda.

As they survive today, these buildings clearly represent all of their design phases. Their multi-stage construction history reflects the long history of the complex and its role in Niagara County's government.

Niagara County, including all of what is now Niagara and Erie Counties, was formed by an act of the New York State Legislature on March 11, 1808. The original county seat was located in Buffalo. Erie County was formed in 1821, establishing Niagara County as it exists today but lacking both a government and a county seat. Governor DeWitt Clinton, then involved in the construction of the Erie Canal, appointed a set of commissioners to establish a Niagara County government. Because of Lockport's significance as a major port on the new canal, as well as its central location in the new county, it was named county seat.

In 1822, Colonel William M. Bond, one of Lockport's early residents and community leaders, deeded three acres to the county to be used for a courthouse and jail. Niagara Street intersected what came to be known as the "Public Square" and, later, the Courthouse Square." The first Niagara County Courthouse was built in 1823 across Niagara Street from its current location. The area around the courthouse became the center of activities in the community, including not only governmental activities but also public meetings and rallies, and social events such as picnics and circuses. The importance of this public square in the community continued for nearly one hundred years. Although the 1823 building itself does not survive, a memorable artifact from the original Niagara County Courthouse recalls this early period. In 1844, County Judge Hiram Gardner commissioned a portrait of George Washington, which was hung behind his bench. That portrait was donated to Niagara County and has hung continuously in the Niagara County Courthouse ever since. Currently it holds a place in the legislative chamber of the Niagara County Courthouse.

By 1874 the original Niagara County Courthouse was badly overcrowded. Planning for a new courthouse was initiated and plans for the Niagara County Courthouse were drawn by M.E. Beebe and Son, of Buffalo. In 1885 the Niagara County Board of Supervisors, then meeting at the Hodge Opera House, accepted the bid of $68,000 made by William J. Blackley of Lockport for the construction on a new building, with the proviso that it be built of "local Lockport dolomite limestone." The contractor started at once and by December 13, 1886, the Niagara County Courthouse was completed at its current location, previously the site of the Lockport Female Seminary and the Exchange Coffee House.

The new Niagara County Courthouse was two stories tall beneath a mansard roof. Its symmetrical facade consisted of four bays on each side organized around a central projecting entrance pavilion with a multi-stage tower crowned by a statue of Justice. In style, the new Niagara County Courthouse embodied those features associated with the French Second Empire style, popular in the second half of the nineteenth century and enormously popular for government and civic buildings in the 1860s-80s. Characteristic of that style, the horizontal plane of the building's primary elevation was divided into pavilions, alternately recessed and projecting. Other typical features include the central projecting tower and the mansard roof.

The building was designed by Milton E. Beebe and Son, a well-known Buffalo firm, which is known for the designs of many ecclesiastical, residential and commercial buildings in that city. Milton Beebe (1840-1922) was a grandson of one of Buffalo's first settlers. He worked as a carpenter before setting himself up as an architect after the Civil War. His son Henry joined the business in the 1880s. Among their notable works in Buffalo were the Brisbane Building (1895), Lafayette Square, and St. Peter's Evangelical Reformed Church (1877), Genesee Street, built in the Gothic Revival style.

By 1913 the Niagara County Courthouse had again become overcrowded. However, because of the importance of the existing building and its site in local affairs, the decision was made to build an addition rather than construct a new building on a different site. The board of supervisors asked for bids on the project in 1913 and awarded the contract to Lockport contractor John Moon, for a bid of $83,850. Architectural plans were drawn up by Chester R. Phelps, architect, of Niagara Falls. The plans called for the addition of a substantial wing on the south end of the building, doubling its size. Although the new construction, undertaken between 1915 and 1917, replicated the original design and materials of the building, the facade was reoriented to the west elevation, where a monumental two and one-half story entrance pavilion was added. With the removal of the tower and the addition of the temple-front pavilion, the courthouse took on an appearance more characteristic of early twentieth century civic buildings, many of which were designed in the Neoclassical mode. The floor plan and interior spaces were completely redesigned as well, with the new interior designed around a large, central rotunda.

The architect responsible for the 1915-1917 building phase was Chester R. Phelps of Niagara Falls. Phelps (1870-1965) resided in Niagara Falls for sixty years and is known for the designs of several school buildings in that city. In addition to the remodeling of the courthouse, Phelps was also responsible for the enlargement of the Niagara County Clerk's Office (Civil Defense Building) at 139 Niagara Street.

In 1955, the Niagara County Courthouse received its final addition, the addition of a steel-frame wing with glass curtain walls on the west, or rear elevation. Although non-historic, this wing was also typical of its period and is a representative example of Modern architecture as it was interpreted in the mid-1950s. This wing was designed by Cannon, Thiele, Betz and Cannon, Architects, with Leon H. Wendel of Lockport as the consulting engineer. Albert Elia of Niagara Falls received the general contract at a base bid of $699,447 (and $20,087 in "extras").

As it survives today, the Niagara County Courthouse clearly reflects all three of its construction phases. Features representing both of its historic periods, 1886 and 1915-17, are distinct within a unified overall design. The form, massing, rusticated limestone material, fenestration and mansard roof represent the original design of the building, while the temple-front pavilion, dome and rotunda mark the second phase of the building's history. While not historic, the large 1950s addition is typical of its period, illustrating the way that Modern architecture was being interpreted in the designs of civic buildings in the post-World War II years. As a whole, the building embodies the grand scale and monumental form typical of civic architecture during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Niagara County Clerk's Office pre-dates the current courthouse. Constructed in 1856, it was built as part of the cluster of government buildings that developed in proximity to the original 1823 courthouse, which was located adjacent to the clerk's office on the north side of Niagara Street. After the first Niagara County Courthouse was demolished, a jail keeper's residence replaced it on the same site, with jail located on the next lot to the west. Both of the latter two buildings have since been demolished.

Like the Niagara County Courthouse, the Niagara County Clerk's Office was constructed in stages. The original 1856 construction was a small square stone building three bays wide with a central entrance, surmounted by a pyramidal roof. Classical in mode, the building was simply embellished. In 1917, the clerk's office was expanded with a large, L-shaped addition that wrapped around its south and east elevations. The architect for the enlargement was Chester R. Phelps, who also designed the major expansion of the courthouse in this same period. Phelps followed a similar rationale in his work on the Niagara County Clerk's Office. As in the Niagara County Courthouse, the additions replicated the original design and materials of the building, while an overlay of Neoclassical features brought the enlarged building into conformity with contemporary design ideals for civic architecture. These include a large-scale temple-front entrance pavilion, a central dome, and a new interior plan organized around a central rotunda, all features that Phelps used on the courthouse. The expanded building thus shares a continuity of design with the courthouse that reinforces their continuity of history and function.

References

American Architect and Building News 5 (26 April 1879): 135.

Banham, Reyner. Buffalo Architecture: A Guide. Cambridge: MITP, 1982.

"Ceremony Set at Courthouse." Union-Sun and Journal 22 Nov. 1989.

"County Bought Site From Col. W.M. Bond." Union-Sun and Journal 17 July 1965.

"County Courthouses Have Histories Dating to 1822." Union-Sun and Journal 16 July 1986.

"Courthouse Project Finds Link to Past." Union-Sun and Journal n.d., 1987.

"Courthouse Rededication Part of U.S. Bicentennial." Union-Sun and Journal 27 Nov. 1989.

Courthouse Demolition Photo. Union-Sun and Journal 26 October 1955.

Courthouse Photo. Union-Sun and Journal (Impact '87 Insert) 25 April 1987.

Courthouse Photos. Union-Sun and Journal 26 March 1953.

Courthouse Rendering. Lockport Journal 11 September 1913.

Courthouse Sandblasting Photo. Union-Sun and Journal 25 August 1959.

"Firm Awarded $20,087 Extras on Courthouse." Union-Sun and Journal 7 March 1958.

Headrick, Maggie and Ehrlich, Celia. Seeing Buffalo. Buffalo: Ivyhall, 1978.

"Historical Courthouse Will Be Rededicated." Union-Sun and Journal 16 November 1989.

McIntyre, Lawrence. "Area Landmarks." Buffalo News 31 1988.

Pool, William. Landmarks Of Niagara County. n.p.: Mason, 1987.

"Present County Courthouse Combines Both Old and New Architecture." Union-Sun and Journal 28 August 1971.

Riley, Edward J. Courthouse South Wing Construction Photo. 1914. Union-Sun and Journal 1958.

  1. LaFrank, Kathleen, N. Y. State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Niagara County Courthouse and County Clerk's Office, nomination document, 1997, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, DC

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