Wood County Courthouse
The Wood County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
When Wood County was established by the Virginia Assembly in 1798, its official business was conducted in the home of Hugh Phelps, from which Wood County's first sheriff, Colonel William Lowther, carried out the obligations of his office. As the county grew with the commerce that flowed on the Ohio and Little Kanawha rivers, a new two-story building of hewn logs was built about 350 feet from the Ohio River, facing the Little Kanawha River. It was there that the citizens adopted resolutions, informing the governor and president of the Burr-Blennerhassett conspiracy. This structure was in use from 1802 to 1817 and was probably the first public building in Parkersburg. Since the upper floor was used as the courthouse and the lower as the jail, the stocks, pillory, and whipping post were in evidence nearby.
The next courthouse, built in 1817, was moved from the rivers and located on what is known today as Court Square (at 3rd and Market Street). This building stood on land donated to the county by William and Mary Robinson. They had purchased the property from Mary's father, Alexander Parker, in May 1811. In 1783, Parker acquired the land from Robert Thronton who, in turn, had received preemption claims to the land on which Parkersburg now stands by a "Tomahawk entry." Of course, this information lends much historic significance to this particular plot of public land, on which the present courthouse stands today.
Being the first substantial courthouse, this 1817 structure was considered an elegant building, with a fan-light over the door and a tall bell tower, topped with a weather vane. As the area grew and prospered, however, this building was soon outmoded. In 1860 a handsome two-story brick edifice in Greek style with white pillars and a tall spire was erected on or near the location of the previous one. It not only served the county but was also used by the city government until a city building was constructed in 1897. Costing $25,000, this courthouse was considered one of the finest in western Virginia. One of Wood County's most famous circuit judges, Arthur I. Boreman, held court there from 1861 to 1863, resigning to become West Virginia's first governor. He returned for a second tenure on the bench, serving from 1889 to 1896.
Because of heavy lightning damage in 1885 and the continued prosperity resulting from river commerce and the oil and gas boom of the surrounding area, county officials decided the thirty-seven year old building was too small. The third courthouse constructed on what is Court Square is the one standing today, with its cornerstone laid October 5, 1899. As a symbol of continuity, the huge bell, cast in 1860, was salvaged from the previous courthouse and still rests in the elegant Romanesque tower of the present building.
The present Wood County Courthouse is an outstanding architectural example of American Romanesque, inspired by H.H. Richardson, architect, whose influence can be seen in many 19th century public buildings. The unusual vertical quality of the building is emphasized by a 100 foot entrance tower and by steeply pitched corner pavilions with pyramidal tile covered roofs and gabled wall dormers. The heavy and durable rock-faced walls are set upon a raised basement and pierced by arched window and door openings, including the major north-south recessed arched entrances embellished with enriched stone archivolts, smooth stone voussoirs, and carvings of foliage and grotesques. A fountain at the Market Street entrance features a bronze memorial bust of J.J. Jackson of Parkersburg by sculptor Massey Rhind. The preservation of these features of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture is a most desirable goal for our nation because it is probably the first style to be developed in the United States rather than Europe. It is even more urgent to retain the present courthouse because it has been deemed architecturally superior in style to the courthouses of adjacent counties. In addition, it would certainly not be feasible today to attempt to reproduce the skill and workmanship evident in the sturdy exterior walls of this building.
Architect Perry Borchers of Ohio State University stated in 1973 that "Four complete facades of stone, ornamented with carvings, represent considerable expenditure and display of civic pride in 1899." When Theodore Roosevelt visited Parkersburg on April 5, 1912, during the 1912 presidential campaign and delivered his address from the Market Street entrance of the courthouse, that same pride was evident. When a majority of the people of Wood County voted in favor of preserving the old courthouse on November 7, 1978, it was clear that they had not broken with their proud past.
In conclusion, in this time of great change, when attitudes and values are often tried and tested, it is important that a people retain their heritage. In an attempt to preserve their courthouse, the people of Wood County are acknowledging a debt to their forefathers on whose perseverance, dedication and sacrifice a successful community was built.
Alvaro F. Gibbens, Century of Progress, published for the County Centennial, 1899.
Borchers, Perry E., Report on the Architectural Character and Quality of the Wood County Courthouse, Parkersburg, West Virginia. (Historic Preservation Unit, WV Department of Culture & History) 1973, 14pp.
"Court Square Filled by Roosevelt Crowd," The Parkersburg Sentinel, April 5, 1912.
"Five Separate Structures Have Served County Court," The Parkersburg News, December 26, 1976.
"Parkersburg Voters Save Old Courthouse", Preservation News, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, February 1979, p.2.