It occurred to me the other day that we, as lawyers, spend a great deal of our time at the courthouse. Well, let me take a step back. To tell this correctly, I must give you the entire story. I was walking the one block to the DeKalb County Courthouse for a Monday morning status call when this thought occurred to me. I was actually in the midst of one of those small moments of disenchantment and burn-out that occur way too often in this profession. Although it was only 8:45 a.m., it had been one of those mornings that left me wondering why I would truly want to do this for the rest of my life. As I was lamenting my plight and carrying on quite a vivid discourse in my own head, I looked up to cross the street and my gaze landed on the beautiful and historic DeKalb County Courthouse. And that’s when it hit me.
We, as lawyers, should be proud of our profession. Although this fact often gets forgotten when we are focusing on the day-to-day grind, the legal profession has a very long and rich history that should be celebrated. And where has the majority of that very long and rich history occurred? Well....at the courthouse, of course. There are so many historic and regal courthouses in the State of Illinois that should be celebrated as these courthouses also show the history of our profession. And that, my friends, was the inspiration for this column. So, without further delay, on to the first courthouse.....
DEKALB COUNTY COURTHOUSE
In 1837, the State of Illinois passed an Act to create DeKalb County and the area
of the county that is now Sycamore was chosen as the county seat. In 1839, court was first held in DeKalb County. This first courthouse was a two story 20’ x 30’ building located south of the current public square. In 1850, the second courthouse was built on the public square. By the late 1890s, almost every surrounding county had replaced their earlier courthouse buildings with new facilities and there were many in DeKalb County who wanted to do the same with their courthouse. On October 29, 1903, the cornerstone of the new building was laid. In 1904-1905, after a long battle over whether the new courthouse should be built in DeKalb or Sycamore, the third courthouse was completed. The three-story stone building boasts a facade that includes a two-story colonnade above the main entrance that was intended to resemble the front of an ancient Greek or Roman temple. This is the DeKalb County Courthouse that still stands in Sycamore today.
In the 1980’s, there were some individuals in the county who wanted to destroy the historic courthouse and build a new, modern judicial complex somewhere on the outskirts of the county. However, the historic DeKalb County Courthouse had become an important landmark to many individuals in the community and they fought to keep the old courthouse. After a long hard battle, the DeKalb County Courthouse was remodeled in 1984 and all efforts were made to maintain and preserve the history of the building, while also making sure that the courthouse functioned appropriately and efficiently in the modern world. For example, a good portion of the furniture in the building has been in the courthouse since 1905. The light fixtures in the old courtrooms are the original gas fixtures that have now been rewired for electricity. In fact, many of the courtroom fixtures still have the original components for when they functioned as gas lights. The existing wood doors and trim were restored and reused in the courthouse.
Some changes have had to be made in order to accommodate the modern world, but for the most part those in charge have been able to blend history with everyday functionality. Maureen Josh, DeKalb County Circuit Clerk, and the Honorable Judge Klein, Chief Judge in DeKalb County, are two of the individuals who should be given credit for preserving the historical integrity of the courthouse. When asked why she fights for preserving the courthouse, Maureen Josh stated that it is “the People’s building and it is our responsibility to care for it and preserve it as others did for us.” Both Maureen Josh and Judge Klein frequently participate in school tours of the building in which they teach young children and high schoolers about the history of the courthouse. During these tours, Judge Klein often tells the story about why the short railing was added in front of the jury box in Courtroom 300. Apparently, when women wearing skirts began to sit on juries, the short railing (also called a “modesty bar”) was added to avoid any embarrassment when female jurors sat in the front row of the jury box in their skirts.
When you walk into Courtroom 300, Judge Klein’s courtroom, you get a true sense of what it means to be in this profession. The courtroom itself simply demands respect. It still has its original plasterwork, chandeliers and other light fixtures, wainscoting, beveled glass doors, and turn of the century decorative details. There is also a stained glass skylight in the ceiling of this courtroom. In short, it is what every courtroom should look like. When Judge Klein was asked to comment on the courthouse, he stated: “The County has made a 104 year commitment to the courthouse and has done a terrific job of maintaining the People’s building. I hope their commitment will continue for another 104 years. It’s a great symbol for the center of our judicial system.”
And the courthouse has become a great symbol for the community, as well. In fact, many feel that it has become the center of Sycamore and most of the community events throughout the year are held on the courthouse lawn. Maureen Josh explained this sentiment when she stated: “...the citizens of DeKalb County are very grateful to those people before us who took such courageous stands to preserve the existing courthouse...I believe the courthouse is the most beautiful courthouse in the State of Illinois...”
Although I may be biased, I would have to agree with her.