Rockland County Courthouse
The Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. 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 Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens are located on the southwest corner of New Hempstead Road and South Main Street in the hamlet of New City, Town of Clarkstown. The Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens are part of a 56.06 acre governmental complex situated in a commercial district. The main facade of the Rockland County Courthouse faces east. The Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens parcel includes approximately 7.75 acres of the total site, and is bounded on the north by New Hempstead Road, on the east by South Main Street, on the south by the southern boundary of the Dutch Gardens, and on the west by the Demarest Kill. The remainder of the parcel is occupied by modern buildings.
Located in front of the Rockland County Courthouse (one contributing building) is one other significant feature: a World War I Memorial (one contributing object). There are also four non-contributing objects on the site: the Rockland County Service Memorial, the Korean and Vietnam Memorial, the Man of Light sculpture, and the World War II Memorial. Dutch Gardens (one contributing site), located south of the county courthouse, once encompassed over five acres; however, the development of governmental buildings and parking area has reduced it to the present three acres. Its boundaries are defined by the Demarest Kill to the west and parking lots to the north, east and south. The significant features of this designed landscape include a tea house (one contributing building), a brick table (one contributing object), and a gazebo, bandstand, arbor, brick walls and brick walkways (five contributing structures).
Erected in 1928, the Rockland County Courthouse is a three-story, symmetrical building constructed of Indiana limestone. The building reflects the Art Deco architectural style, which originated in the 1920's and achieved its greatest popularity in civic architecture before 1940. The outline of the building is plain and unbroken. The rear of the Rockland County Courthouse is constructed of brick with a common running bond, as is the jail that is connected to the courthouse on the west side. The roof of the courthouse is flat, so as not to distract from the facade of the building. The structural support system for the courthouse consists of a steel frame with a concrete floor. The two front driveways to the parking lots were strategically placed to take advantage of the existing double rows of maple trees that led to the two front doors of the earlier county courthouse on the same site.
The Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens is approached by means of a broad sidewalk leading from Main Street to a wide set of low granite steps extending across the front of the building. The sidewalk passes by a World War I memorial that was moved from the front of the old courthouse. Ornate carved pedestal lamps flank the entrance to the building. On the north wing is a carved bas-relief medallion of the Rockland County seal; the south wing bears the State of New York seal. The frieze between the medallions bears the carved inscription, "Rockland County Court House" and "Anno Domini MCMXXVIII."
Three pairs of bronze doors guarded by wrought-iron screens give entrance form the granite terrace at the top of the steps. Above each door is a large window with a cast medallion emblematic of the judicial system. The symbols depict the scales of justice, an overlapping "R" and "C" (for Rockland County), and the Latin word "LEX." The bank of entrance doors is flanked by windows embellished with wrought-iron designs. At the top of each window is an elaborate wrought-iron flower, depicted on many motifs adorning the courthouse. Above the doors are motifs of sunrises, flowers, and waterfalls, representing the abundant natural resources of the county.
The northern and southern end walls of the courthouse are built of Indiana limestone and brick. The west (rear) side of the courthouse is constructed of brick. A brick corridor connects the west wall of the courthouse to the adjacent Rockland County jail and law library. The design of these brick appendages is plain and symmetrical. The jail and law library were constructed shortly after the courthouse was built.
The exterior of the courthouse retains a high degree of integrity. In 1977, alterations were made which included the provision of handicapped access on the west side of the building and the addition of an exit stairway tower on the south side of the building. No other changes to the exterior of the building have occurred.
Inside the courthouse a large, three-story lobby extends across the front of the building to the two flanking pavilions. In the center, a marble stair rises to a low platform and then ascends in both directions to the main (second) courtroom floor. The wall above the first stair platform is embellished with a decorative map of Rockland County painted in 1929 by architect and muralist James Monroe Hewlett. The map, prepared from authentic historical data and descriptive of the early history of the county and the origins of the towns, shows illustrations of prominent figures who influenced the county. At the top of the broad marble stairway, guarded by bronze rails, are doorways leading to offices in the rear of the courthouse. Above each of the doors is an ornate emblem of the State of New York seal. Flowing under each seal is a cascading waterfall. On the ceiling of the main vestibule is an intricately designed bas-relief incorporating stylized motifs associated with law, justice and Rockland County.
The layout of the floor plan for each floor is composed of two main rooms on the north and south end of the building, a stairway centrally located in the building, and a series of small rooms and alcoves in the front section of the courthouse. No major alterations have been made to the principal interior spaces of the building. Some of the secondary spaces have been remodeled and enlarged and the lighting system has been upgraded throughout the building, but the courthouse retains a very high level of overall integrity.
In front of the main (east) facade of the courthouse is a World War I Memorial. This monument (one contributing object), modeled after Peter Streit, a U.S. Navy veteran, was erected in the mid-1920's in front of the old brick courthouse. The memorial lists the names of county residents who died during the war. Three plaques commemorating the county residents who served during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War have been added to the sides of the monument. The monument was relocated to the mall area shortly after the present courthouse was built. Other non-contributing objects on the grounds of the courthouse include a World War II Memorial, a Korean and Vietnam War Memorial, a Rockland County Service Memorial, and a modern sculpture, all added to the site since 1945.
Dutch Gardens was constructed between 1934 and 1938. Entrance into the Gardens is through the Rockland County courthouse property. Following a brick walk bordered by a serpentine brick wall, the garden's path leads to a tea house, which is the principal building in the park. Once through the tea house, an outdoor patio allows a view of the entire park. Gravel walks lead through formal gardens which include tulip beds, rose bushes, lilacs and majestic trees. The walkway itself is a myriad of designs, splitting and rejoining as it connects to each contributing feature. The walkway leads south down the center of the gardens. About one-third of the way south, the path splits and surrounds a central display of bushes. Just before and after the split of the trail are promenades extending to the east and west. When the paths rejoin, they become a series of diagonals, running from northeast to southwest. These diagonals all eventually lead to a gravel path that continues on the western edge of the property along the high river bank to a gazebo. Structures located throughout the park are situated along the interconnecting walks; they include a round brick table with attached seats, a bandstand with silver cedar trees as a backdrop, a brick arbor with wooden timbers, and a gazebo, all located in the southern end of the park.
The tea house, a one-story building that includes an attached brick walk leading to the main entrance, a round patio on the southern side and an outdoor patio on the western side, serves as a gathering place for local residents and county employees. Wedding ceremonies are also held on the brick patios. A partial basement is located under the attached patio. The complete structure is made of bricks bearing fifty different trademarks from the Haverstraw brick yard. A hip roof with terra cotta tile protects the tea house. The three main access points are through arches complete with decorative keystones. The overall shape of the building is rectangular.
The principal interior feature of the tea house is a brick fireplace. Cut into the brick work of the mantel is the word "bescishap," Dutch for progress. Above the fireplace is a stone carving of "The Sunset Over the Ramapos." Other decorative elements include brick carvings of the name "Dutch Garden" and the year "1934" affixed to the eastern wall of the tea house above the archway.
A bandstand is located in the extreme southeastern section of the park. A lawn with gravel walks leads to the brick building. The entire platform consists of bricks with intricate patterns and two steps. A backdrop of silver cedars and other ornamental shrubs surround the bandstand, which is used for a variety of functions including concerts, plays, poetry reading and public speaking. An arbor, located in the southern portion of Dutch Gardens, is composed of brick pillars and wooden timbers. Walking through the arbor, visitors are led directly to the gazebo. Located in the southwestern section of the park, the gazebo consists of a round brick base with brick pillars supporting a conical roof of terra cotta tiles. Used as a gathering place and lunch area, the gazebo is located on a steep hillside overlooking the Demarest Kill.
Serpentine brick walls, originally located on the northern, eastern, and southern boundary, remain only on the northern portion and half of the eastern boundary. The walls stand five feet high and are divided into ten foot sections. Each section has two pillars that connect the flat panels with the serpentine panels. Each pillar is constructed of bricks of varying design. The walls rest on a concrete footing.
A small, round brick table, connected with two separate seats, is located in the eastern section of the park. All the bricks were cut and carved by hand and fit into place with precision. The table and seats are used for picnics, lunches and a meeting place. The formal gardens of tulip beds, rose gardens and multiple flower beds are outlined by brick borders. The elevated sections are reached by brick stairs. Gravel paths meander through the designed flower beds.
Dutch Gardens retains a high degree of design integrity. The plan and contributing architectural features remain intact, and the original planting scheme has been faithfully adhered to over the years. The loss of some sections of the surrounding brick walls and adjacent open space represent the only degradation of the garden since its original construction.
The Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens are architecturally and historically significant as outstanding intact expressions of civic architecture that consciously recall aspects of local history in their design, style, and ornamentation. The courthouse, an Art Deco design selected by competition and constructed in 1928, is a rare intact example of this architectural style in New City, New York. The modernity of the style is elegantly expressed in the building's flat, unbroken, symmetrical plan and geometrically stylized Classical motifs, while the heavy use of carving and sculpture display the lingering Beaux-Arts influences that also characterized the Art Deco idiom. Numerous memorials, murals, seals, and decorative motifs serve as visual images of the county's natural and cultural heritage — from murals depicting early Dutch settlers and sculptures memorializing war dead, to local flora executed in wrought iron, copper, or etched glass. The courthouse is also historically significant as a symbol of the growing role of the American civil and judicial system at the local level during the second quarter of the twentieth century. The courthouse was constructed to replace an earlier, smaller building and its size, scale and massing recall the increasing presence of county government in twentieth-century society. Dutch Gardens, a three-acre nationally known and award-winning gardens are architecturally significant as a formal, designed landscape that incorporates unique brick carvings and intricate patterns in the garden's various architectural components. The gardens were designed by Mary Mowbray Clarke, a local architect, in the seventeenth century formal Dutch tradition. Dutch Gardens combines representative aspects of this tradition, including vast flower beds and extensive use of brick in pathways, walls, objects, and buildings, with truly unique craftsmanship, expressed in carved brick scenes, figures, faces, and flora. Dutch Gardens is historically significant as a twentieth-century park designed to recall and memorialize Rockland County's Dutch heritage, but also because it was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project of the Depression era. The only W.P.A. landscape architecture project, designed by a woman, the gardens reflect that program's focus on funding for community projects. Located in the middle of a dense, modern, and bustling commercial district, the Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens form a recognizable historical and environmental refuge in the heart of New City.
The present Rockland County Courthouse was preceded by three other courthouses. The first Rockland County Courthouse, built in 1739, was located in Tappan, then the county seat for all of Orange County, which at the time included Rockland County. In 1774, after a fire destroyed all of the records at Tappan, the county seat remained at New City, while Goshen became the Orange County governmental center.
In the nineteenth century the existing courthouse became inadequate for serving the public need due to an increase in the area's population. In 1823 a proposition to provide a new courthouse was approved. The old wooden courthouse was demolished and a new two-story brick building was built adjacent to and on the north side of the courthouse. A new county clerk and surrogate court building was constructed as a second addition to the courthouse in 1873.
In 1926 the decision to build a new Rockland County Courthouse was made, since the county again had outgrown the existing building. The board of supervisors hired a Dr. Laird of Philadelphia as architectural consultant. General plans and specifications for a building intended to meet the county's needs for at least 50 years were drawn by Laird, and six outstanding architects in the country were selected to submit detailed plans and specifications for the courthouse. The architectural firm of Dennison and Hirons won the design competition.
The Rockland County Courthouse is a distinguished example of Art Deco civic architecture. It is also one of only a very few Art Deco public buildings in Rockland County. The Art Deco architectural style, originating in the 1920's and commonly used in civic architecture into the 1940's, is typically characterized by a symmetrical plan with classical motifs that have been reduced to simplistic geometric stylization. This period of architectural style is the turning point from the Beaux-Arts to the modern, and the Art Deco style embodies some of both. The design of the Rockland County Courthouse exemplifies the simplistic, horizontal and symmetrical form, adorned with intricate motifs and ornamentation, that was characteristic of the Art Deco style. The imposing size and broad, horizontal massing of the Rockland County Courthouse gives the building an appearance of grandeur and importance, reflecting the eminent role that the building played in the county at the time it was constructed.
The Rockland County Courthouse symbolizes the growing role of the American civil and judicial system at the local level, especially during the second quarter of the twentieth century. When the first courthouse was built in the county, then Orange County, it was a small isolated building located in Tappan. After recognizing the growing importance of the courts and government, the county seat was moved to New City, a more centralized location in the county. While the county's population was growing, so was the reliance on county government. When the government recognized that it had outgrown the clapboard courthouse, a new courthouse was built larger, more elaborate, and more durable. The government again outgrew this new courthouse, and replaced the building with the present edifice. Each time a new courthouse was built, the decision to construct a new facility was more carefully planned, the design was more elaborate, and the construction more durable. The county seat and the courthouse were clearly becoming focal points in the region and growing in importance.
Dutch Gardens complements the courthouse and represents an important part of Rockland County's historical and architectural heritage. The Garden was the only formal landscape architecture project undertaken in the county under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, and is the most unusual and ambitious example of the landscape design work of Mary Mowbray Clarke (1874-1963).
Dutch Gardens was built as part of an overall plan for Courthouse Park during the years 1935-1938. Designed by the self-taught garden designer Mary Mowbray Clarke, Courthouse Park included the formal Dutch Gardens, built on a flat man-made terrace that was formerly a dump site, and the Wild Gardens, a naturalistic landscape sloping down to Demarest Kill and extending across and down the stream. The ambitious original scheme, evident in the preserved 1933 site plan prepared under the direction of Mary Mowbray Clarke, was only partially executed. The significance of Dutch Gardens is two-fold: 1) it exemplifies a well-preserved public garden embracing garden design, plant selection, and supportive architectural back-drops characteristic of the 1930's, and 2) it is a public garden commemorating a simplified and idealized view of the earliest settlement of the county. This idealized historicism is closely associated with the ideological climate of the Depression era.
During the years of 1934 to 1936, the nation was struggling through the Depression. Funding for community projects was limited but the need to provide work for the unemployed was necessary. Funds for the Dutch Gardens were provided by the Works Progress Administration. The project was innovative in that all the materials were contributed. This allowed the limited amount of money available to be used solely for the local workers salaries. Commissioned to Mary Mowbray Clarke, the project was the only W.P.A. outdoor work construction project designed and supervised by a woman. The garden was by designation and intent a public, commemorative landscape entity promoted by the administrators and citizens of Rockland County to reflect the long-term, simplified view of regional settlement heritage.
Historically, seventeenth-century Dutch gardening tenets derived from the lowland topography, with emphasis on formal rectilinear, canalized organization. In contrast, the potential site selected at New City was characterized by a precipitous slope. At the turn of the century, advocates of the formal architectural garden and those who advocated the wholly naturalistic, plant collection-oriented gardening concept engaged in a running debate in the horticultural press. By the 1930's, garden designers were seeking to reconcile these polarized viewpoints. In Mary Mowbray Clarke's selection of siting, structural elements, planting arrangements, and plant species, the Dutch Gardens of Rockland County epitomizes this compromise design approach, and is a notable example of its type and period.
The continued interest in maintaining the concept and integrity of Dutch Gardens, despite serious vicissitudes since its completion and planting in the late 1930's, underscore its established value as a public symbol. It not only stands for historical attitudes of the 1920's and 1930's, but it may be seen as a special exemplar in the distribution of public monies during a period fraught with considerable economic and social instability. The Dutch Gardens, as a pendant to the most recently constructed of the several Rockland County courthouses, is significant as a landscape filled with intimate local evocations that is also related in scope and execution to the larger twentieth-century events and trends in design and public understanding of garden history.
† Kuhn, Robert D., New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, Rockland County Courthouse and Dutch Gardens, nomination document, 1990, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.