Oswego County Courthouse
The Oswego County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. 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 Oswego County Courthouse in Oswego is located along the south edge of Washington Square on the city's east side. The Renaissance Revival building was built in 1859-1860 and altered in 1891 and again in 1962. Washington Square is located east of the Oswego River between East Bridge Street at the north and East Oneida Street at the south, East Second Street at the west and East Fourth Street at the east. The landscaped square incorporates the historic courthouse building, a county office building, a synagogue, and the north portal of a nineteenth century railroad tunnel. The square is surrounded by a series of religious and institutional buildings, a row of detached houses on East Oneida Street and commercial buildings along East Bridge Street.
The Oswego County Courthouse is situated on an elevated site overlooking Washington Square. The two-story building rises above a cruciform floor plan and is constructed of load bearing masonry walls faced with smooth ashlar limestone. The second story is elevated in height, corresponding to the high ceiling courtroom at the interior. A portico surmounted by a domed cupola is oriented north toward East Bridge Street. The east and west wings, distinguished by minor cupolas at each end, were originally one-story in height but were raised to two in 1891. The building is covered by a combination of hipped and gable roofs surfaced in standing seam metal roofing. Five elaborately detailed limestone chimneys above the perimeter of the central, hipped portion of the roof. A simple two-story addition was added to the south side of the building in 1962.
The north, or principal facade of the Oswego County Courthouse is five bays in width and is distinguished by a projecting three-bay pavilion at the center. At the first story, the pavilion consists of three rectangular entrance recesses divided by rusticated limestone piers detailed with plinths and capitals. Each recess leads to a doorway containing a double-leaf door and a glazed transom. The entrance is approached by a long flight of limestone steps. The second story of the pavilion is arranged as a portico and contains four Corinthian columns supporting a classical entablature and pediment with modillioned cornices. Wall panels recessed inches behind the columns are filled with large round arched windows containing multi-light window sash. A colonnaded cupola rises directly above the pavilion. It consists of an octagonal base, a circular colonnade comprised of cast iron Corinthian columns, a classically detailed entablature and an acorn shaped metal dome. An open gallery encircles the colonnade exterior to an octagonal room with narrow round-arched windows. A cast iron balustrade comprised of a railing supported by decorative arched panels is placed between the columns. The wall panels flanking the pavilion are filled with rectangular windows and detailed with pilasters and entablatures.
The sides of the Oswego County Courthouse are similar. Walls are faced in smooth ashlar limestone and filled with rectangular, multi-light windows. Small two-story wings project from the center of both sides. Each wing is two stories in height, three bays in width and two bays in depth. Window bays are articulated by flat pilasters. The east and west elevations of each wing support shallow pediments. Small cupolas rise above each of the two pediments. The cupola bases are square in plan, each supporting eight simple columns arranged to form an irregular octagon. These in turn support entablatures with denticulated cornices and octagonal, acorn shaped metal domes.
The rear or south elevation of the Oswego County Courthouse is comprised of a rectangular, two-story addition built in 1962. The addition is three bays in depth and five in width and is covered with a flat roof. Walls are faced in smooth ashlar limestone and fenestration consists of simple rectangular windows. The center bay projects forward and contains an entrance at the first floor level and a large window at the second story. The entrance and window above it are flanked by narrow sidelights. The projecting bay supports a pediment.
The interior of the Oswego County Courthouse contains double loaded corridors at the basement and first floor levels and a large courtroom at the second story. The basement, constructed with load bearing brick partitions with arched openings, has recently been rehabilitated for office and conference space. The first floor contains an entrance foyer at the north with two winding staircases at the east and west. The wooden stairs are decorated with bracketed risers, open balustrades with turned balusters, molded handrails and paneled wainscots. The first floor corridor is flanked by wood doors and casings leading to chambers and offices and extends into the 1962 addition at the south side of the building.
The second story contains a large courtroom, preceded by a landing or anteroom at the top of the stairs. The courtroom is a rectangular space with a high, flat ceiling. The walls are articulated into window bays by substantial pilasters which rise above a paneled wainscot. The pilasters support a broad entablature. The coffered ceiling, extensively modified in recent years retains one of several original ventilation medallions. The bench is centered on the south wall and given added prominence by the installation of a pedimented doorway leading to a hall and two anterooms. Furnishings and lighting fixtures appear to date from both the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Doorways centered in the east and west walls lead to smaller chambers used for conferences.
The large cupola is approached via a narrow winding staircase leading to the attic level, and several flights of simple wooden stairs which terminate in a small octagonal room.
The Oswego County Courthouse at Oswego, built between 1859 and 1860, is historically significant for its association with the development of government in Oswego County in the nineteenth century and architecturally significant as an outstanding example of mid-nineteenth century Renaissance Revival public architecture. Designed by the noted Syracuse architect Horatio Nelson White, the stylish and expensively built courthouse reflects a period of extended prosperity in the county based in great measure upon the success of the Oswego Canal and the port of Oswego. Joining several other distinguished public buildings of the period including the Market House (1836), the United States Customs House (1858), and the Gerrit Smith Library (1855), the Oswego County Courthouse reflects Oswego's mid-nineteenth century stature as an important center of shipping and commerce. Continuing in use for 140 years, the Oswego County Courthouse stands out as one of Central New York's finest examples of historic civic architecture.
The city of Oswego, strategically located on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Oswego River, was settled and fortified in the eighteenth century. Building lots and public squares were laid out in 1797, only one year after the departure of the British garrison. A village developed in the shadow of Fort Ontario where freight carried between the state's inland waterways and the Great Lakes was transferred between smaller raft and lake schooners. Although commercial Great Lakes shipping was largely interrupted during the War of 1812, Oswego became a supply depot for American naval stores destined for the U.S. shipyard at Sacketts Harbor. Fort Ontario was successfully attached and destroyed by British forces in 1814.
Oswego County was not established until 1816, one year after the conclusion of hostilities with Great Britain. The half-shire county established seats at Oswego and Pulaski and construction began on the two courthouses in 1818. The first Oswego County Courthouse was a frame structure formerly located at the site of the existing courthouse. It contained a jail in its basement until 1838 when it was determined to be unfit for further use.
The Oswego Canal was completed in 1828, greatly enhancing Oswego's importance as an inland port. With the completion of the Welland Canal in 1830, Oswego became a major port of entry for Canadian lumber and Midwest grain. The county's population doubled between 1820 and 1830. By 1850, Oswego had become the largest U.S. port for Canadian imports and the fourth largest U.S. port for customs receipts. The Oswego River and the adjacent boat basin were crowded with canal boats and lake schooners, flouring mills, shipyards and drydocks. A business district of three and four-story warehouses and business blocks developed along West First Street and Bridge Street.
Within decades, the 1818 Oswego County Courthouse became inadequate in meeting the county's court and administrative needs. The basement level jail was closed in 1838 and prisoners were thereafter locked up in the basement of the brand new Market House on Water Street. A new jail was erected on East Second Street in 1853. A County Clerk's Office was built adjacent to the Oswego County Courthouse on Washington Square in 1851 and became the site of Board of Supervisors meetings. In 1858, the Board of Supervisors appropriated $30,000.00 for the construction of a new Oswego County Courthouse. Funds were allocated at the same time for improvements to the existing courthouse at Pulaski.
The new Oswego County Courthouse was designed by Horatio Nelson White of Syracuse (1814-1892), a prominent Central New York architect highly regarded as a skilled and prolific designer of public buildings and churches. White, a native of Middleton, New Hampshire, began his career as a building contractor in Syracuse in 1843, moving briefly to Brooklyn in 1847 and then to San Francisco during the 1849-1851 building boom. He returned to Syracuse and by 1856 was listed in a city directory as an architect. His first major architectural commissions were awarded in 1856 for a Syracuse commercial building and auditorium, and the new Onondaga County Courthouse in Syracuse. In addition to his Oswego County Courthouse commission in 1858, White was also engaged to design New York State armories in Syracuse, Dunkirk and Ballston Spa, and the Plymouth Congregational Church in Syracuse. The Onondaga County Courthouse and the Plymouth Congregational Church represent variations on the Romanesque Revival style popular in the United States in the 1850s. The Oswego County Courthouse, and several of his commissions during the 1860s and 1870s reflect the influence of the Renaissance Revival style. Significant White designs still standing today also include the 1861 Chemung County Courthouse, the 1861 Jefferson County Courthouse, the 1865 Baldwinsville Presbyterian Church, the 1869 Gridley Building in Syracuse, the 1871 Oswego City Hall, the 1873 Hall of Languages at Syracuse University, the 1877 Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse, and the 1882 Wietung Building in Syracuse. White's practice gradually came to an end in the 1880s, although he remained involved in the profession and served on a commission investigating construction at the New York State Capitol as late as 1889. White died at home in 1892. His obituary referred to him as "the Venerable Architect."
Prior to commencing the construction of the new Oswego County Courthouse, the old courthouse was removed from the building site and relocated on the south side of East Oneida Street where it was attached to the 1852 Episcopal Church of the Evangelist. The moved building was consecrated for parish use on October 31, 1858. Portions of the building remain today as part of the Valehaven Senior Home which currently occupies the former church. Construction of the current court building began in 1859 and was completed in 1860 for a total expenditure of $29,390.00. Onondaga limestone was selected for the exterior facing and backing walls were built of brick. Built atop a hill at the south edge of Washington Square, the domed courthouse immediately became a distinctive architectural landmark in Oswego's east side. The building was symmetrically arranged with a two-story hipped roof block, a projecting two-story pavilion with a portico at the facade, and two one-story pavilions or wings at the center of the east and west side elevations. The front pavilion supported a domed cupola ringed at the gallery level with cast iron Corinthian columns. The smaller pavilions at the side elevations each mirrored the proportions and arrangement of the facade, featuring minor cupolas. All three domes were surmounted by statues and it is presumed that the large dome above the facade supported an allegorical figure of "Justice." Fenestration consisted largely of rectangular windows with carved lintels and sills filled with multi-light sash. Round-arched windows were placed at the facade, and Palladian windows were placed directly above the one-story wings at the center of the two side elevations. Architectural detailing was drawn from Roman classical and Renaissance sources and included rustication at the first story, pilasters, belt courses, and complex entablatures decorated with dentils and modillions. The interior was equally distinguished. Although altered later in the nineteenth century, the main courtroom retains a series of classical pilasters and one of several decorative ceiling medallions. Twin flights of winding stairs at the front of the building were also retained.
In 1891, State Supreme Court ordered modifications to the Oswego County Courthouse. In addition to interior modifications, the two one-story wings were raised to two stories to provide new chambers at the second story. The new walls were designed to match the original walls in material and architectural treatment, and the cupolas were raised to corresponding positions above the center of each wing. The total cost of these modifications totaled $10,707.44. In 1962, a more ambitious addition was built at the rear or south elevation of the courthouse to accommodate growing administrative needs. Designed by Syracuse architects Sargent, Webster, Crenshaw and Folly, the addition is rectangular in form with simple fenestration and limestone facing. Although largely compatible with the historic courthouse, the addition is considered a non-contributing due to its recent date of construction. In recent years, the Oswego County Courthouse has experienced several rehabilitation projects including reroofing, redecorating and the conversion of basement storage space into offices. The courthouse remains an imposing symbol of Oswego County's prosperity and optimism on the eve of the Civil War and an exceptional example of mid-nineteenth century public architecture.
Churchill, John. Landmarks of Oswego County. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1895.
McKee, Harley J. "Horatio Nelson White," Empire State Architect (January 1961-August 1962).
Wellman, Judith ed. Landmarks of Oswego County. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988.