The Old Courthouse (121 East Court Street) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination documentation.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Old Courthouse, also known as Second Tompkins County Courthouse is a rectangular building of two stories, with a three-story tower. It is approximately 57 feet by 75 feet; there are three bays at each end and six on each side. The foundation, about three feet above grade, of a somewhat shaly stone is laid in random ashlar, terminated by a beveled water table. The walls are of red brick divided into bays by buttresses, and into stories by a simple moulded belt course just below the second-story window sills. Small octagonal corner turrets extend above the roof level. The walls were covered in later times, possibly the 1920's, with gray stucco, which has effaced some of the detail.
An entrance is centered on each end of the building (N. and S.); they are similar. The masonry opening is spanned by a two-centered pointed arch, moulded above the spring line, and has three wooden colonettes in each jamb; there is a hood mould. Three steps and a stone threshold lead to each doorway. A door to the basement, on the east side of the building, is an addition to the original structure. The windows have stone sills, some of them covered with stucco, and label moulds above the head. On the first story the openings are rectangular, divided into two parts by wooden tracery, each having a trefoil head. On the second story the openings are pseudo-arched (or triangular-headed), they are also traceried, having a trefoil above each part, and a lozenge above. At the center of each end, at the second story, there is a large two-centered pointed-arch window, triply divided by wooden tracery.
The tower contains a belfry with a pointed-arched (two-centered) opening on each of the four sides, trimmed by a hood mould. Each opening is divided into two parts by tracery and filled with louvers.
The first story interior has a central longitudinal corridor which affords access to rooms on each side. There is a stair in the southwest corner of the building, and another in the northeast corner.
The courtroom is on the second story, which it appears to have filled, originally. Partitions now restrict it to the central four bays, plus a gallery in the bay at the south end. There is now, at the north end, an apse roughly semi-elliptical in plan, behind the judge's bench. A semi-circular railing in front of the bench divides this functional area from that reserved for spectators. Offices occupy the NW and SE corners. This second story originally was open to the trussed roof but the space is now subdivided by an attic floor located at or near the beginning of the roof. This notable open timber roof is intact but now visible only in pieces. There are seven arch-braced hammer-beam trusses, carrying seven purlins on each side, which in turn carry matched and beaded boards. Each has a central pendant. There is a ridge pole. All of this roof woodwork is painted in imitation wood graining.
The gallery has a solid wooden railing, ornamented with trefoil-headed arcading. The attic floor is an addition, for which additional trussing was introduced. Its lower side forms the present courtroom ceiling, which is divided into panels, of narrow matched and beaded boarding by wooden mouldings.
The area at the north end of the courtroom is an architectural curiosity in this Gothic building; it is a Neo-colonial wall to partition off three small offices, and, at the same time, provide an impressive background for the judge's bench. The bench, with its witness box and clerk's desk, rests on a dais four steps above the main floor level of the room. Directly behind is a shallow apse with a semi-elliptical plaster head. It is framed by wooden pilasters of the Roman Doric order, on high pedestals. Above this is a small second-story order, having a pair of pilasters on each side. A central doorway is crowned by a triangular pediment, having an egg-and-dart course in the architrave, and a denticulated cornice. At each side, there is another doorway, similar in detail except that the pediment is segmental. In front of the bench is a large space for lawyers; it is enclosed by a semi-circular railing with turned balusters and square pedestals. This setting was designed in 1894 by William Henry Miller, Ithaca's noted architect who designed many of the finest buildings. His style is marked by eclecticism.
Heating of this building was originally by means of stoves. Later a steam system was installed. Old ornamental steam radiators are still in place.[†]
A mid-nineteenth century public building with a well-developed plan, notable open-timber roof, and other interesting details derived from medieval types. Its original state can be clearly observed despite some interior subdividing. This building is an uncommon survivor of its period in central New York." (McKee)
The Old Court House, the second on this site, was designed by John F. Maurice, Architect, and built in 1854. The land was given to the County in 1817 by Simeon DeWitt...for the first Court House. The existing building is the oldest surviving courthouse of the Gothic Revival period in the state of New York, and the oldest public building in Tompkins County. It served as the county courthouse for 78 years until supplanted by the present courthouse which was built in 1932.
The architectural character of the Old Court House reveals the skill and restraint of the architect in adapting features of English Medieval castles to a public building in the United States. It is an early manifestation of the use of Gothic forms in American architecture and exhibits much more restraint than was to become popular in the years following. It presents a skillful use of brick and wood to reproduce the stone detailing found in its historical prototypes.
Evidence of early attempts at summer and winter ventilation, and heating system, still exist in the building which, when restored, will contribute to the history and development of climate control in public buildings.
"The Old Court House is, indeed, significant and worthy of preservation because of its architectural character which is unique in Ithaca, unusual elsewhere in New York or in the Country...it is a distinguished and outstanding building. Examples of work done in this period have been rapidly disappearing and have but recently been awarded their important place in the development of the architecture of the United States. The building is a sensitive adaptation of historic precedence, exhibiting a fine appreciation of mass, proportion, and space admirably adapted to its original use," (Bullock)
†This description was taken in part from report by Harley J. McKee (see bibliography references).
Bullock, Orin M., Jr: Evaluation and Restoration Feasibility Study of the Old Court House...Ithaca, New York, 1970.
Levatich, Peter S., and Miller, John: Tompkins County Government Center, an Office space Study, 1969.
McKee, Harley J.: Historic American Buildings Survey, Part 11, Second Tompkins County Court House (HABS No. NY-5442) 1966.