As Enduring As Justice Itself: Centennial of the Bergen County Courthouse

Centennial Address on the Bergen County Courthouse and Jail, delivered June 14, 2012.

Honored guests and fellow citizens:

Since the revival of Classical forms in the Italian Renaissance, ornate domes have epitomized civic pride and prosperity in public architecture. Today we gather in the shadow of this crowning marble and copper-sheathed vault to honor the centennial of our magnificent county courthouse, which endures as solid proof of our tested, but unbroken, commitment to popular self-government and to the rule of law.

Imagine (if you will) that this ground was native wilderness only three centuries ago. Our first courthouse, together with a small stone jail, was built at Quacksack in 1715, just northwest of the present intersection of River Street and Broadway in the City of Hackensack. Constructed of stone with an attached dwelling, it stood along a ditch that drained the surrounding meadow into Brass Creek. During its brief lifespan, the population of Bergen County, which then embraced Hudson and Passaic Counties, swelled from 2,600 to over 4,000 souls. Although rebuilt in 1726, the first courthouse only sufficed until 1732, when funds were raised to build a more commodious structure, 48 feet long and 30 feet wide, on the west side of the Green. In 1760, the courthouse managers supervised construction of a jail “with plank and other materials so that the said goals be sufficient to keep prisoners from breaking out….” Two years later, two good blankets were purchased to shield prisoners from the cold. A town clock was placed in the courthouse steeple in 1763 and the upper rooms were used to store arms. When the Judge’s bench and courtroom moved to the north end of the building in 1771, the courtroom, painted light blue, was illuminated with a glass-paned lantern, two tin chandeliers and six iron candle stands with brass knobs. A pillory and whipping post stood in the Courthouse Yard. 

This second courthouse stood until “the times that try men’s souls.” It perished in flames on March 23, 1780, after three hundred British and Hessian troops landed at Weehawken and made their way undetected to Little Ferry. Although it took three hours to cross the Hackensack River in a whaleboat and canoe, the invaders spilled into town at four o’clock in the morning, ransacking  “every house that should be pointed out to them.” Acting no doubt on timely intelligence, they captured a militia company from Harrington Township, who slept in the courthouse, having just delivered tax assessment lists and tax collections from their district. To suppress our Independence, this raiding party not only torched the courthouse, but also the nearby dwelling of Sheriff Adam Boyd, whose foot was pierced by a bayonet as he leapt over the lower leaf of his backdoor and escaped into the darkness. To dispense justice and perpetuate county government in time of war, the Justices and Freeholders ordered a temporary jail with a courtroom in the upper story to be fashioned of squared timbers, near Ponds Church in Oakland.

To serve a county population exceeding 9,000 residents by war’s end, a third courthouse was built in 1784 on the east side of Main Street, just north of Bridge Street. Only slightly more commodious than its predecessor, it stood two stories in height, measuring 30 feet wide and 60 feet long. The Justices and Freeholders first met there on July 3, 1786, just in time for the tenth anniversary of American Independence. 

After some controversy over choosing a suitable location, the fourth courthouse was built of brick in 1819, just to the east of the present building. Described in 1834 as “a neat and spacious brick edifice,” this one-and-a-half story structure was also home to the county sheriff, who kept watch over poorly ventilated prison cells beneath his quarters. Despite considerable enlargement in 1892, this courthouse was deemed an unsanitary and overcrowded firetrap by the dawn of the twentieth century, completely unsuited to the prestige of New Jersey’s fastest growing county. 

The population of Bergen County swelled from 47,000 to 65,000 residents between 1890 and 1895, a 38% increase. Agriculture slowly faded as the mainstay of the economy and the Federal Census of 1900 would be the last of its kind to classify a majority (60%) of Bergen County's population as rural. As descendants of the original colonial families, derogatorily called Punkin Dusters, contested with Commuters for Home Rule under the new School Consolidation Act of 1894, The Paterson Guardian noted Bergen County “has gone into the wholesale borough business.”  Twenty-six boroughs were formed in 1894 alone. Reflecting the borough craze, the Board of Chosen Freeholders increased from 16 to 32 members between 1894 and 1910.

The population of Bergen County passed 100,000 in 1905, placing increasing demands upon county government and the courts. Consequently, James Riely Gordon, a noted architect of public buildings, was selected in 1907 to design a new courthouse. Rejecting arguments for a more central location in Hackensack, the County Building Committee decided in December 1908 to again build on the edge of the public green. Bid specifications for the new courthouse filled 600 typewritten pages. In January 1909, an architectural rendering, exhibited in the County Clerk’s office, revealed plans for  “a very pretentious looking structure, with white marble front, the three-story building being topped with a very tall cupola on which is perched the bird of freedom. The building is set back 50 feet from the street.” Declining the use of native sandstone, the base of the new structure called for granite to a point six feet above ground level with the upper portion to be constructed entirely of marble.

On August 12, 1909, the County Engineer accompanied the three-man Court House Committee on a trip to inspect a stone quarry in Cleveland, Ohio. The building contract was awarded on November 6, 1909, to J. T. Brady & Company, of New York, for $827,672. In addition, a decision was reached to build a new jail at an estimated cost of $200,000. In his design for the jail, architect James Riely Gordon employed a cross-shaped plan with a castellated tower at its center (supposedly modeled after the Bastille in Paris), which allowed a few guards to oversee numerous prisoners in detention cells in the wings. To cloak his otherwise modern plan, Gordon cleverly added parapets and slit windows to echo a medieval keep.

Thrusting a near-gold spade into the earth, James M. Gulnac, Chairman of the Court House Committee, broke ground in the presence of nearly 200 spectators on Monday afternoon, November 29, 1909. Iron girders arrived in April 1910 and the first of an estimated 35 million bricks, needed for the project, were soon handily piled for the masons. As all three members of the Court House Committee and the County Engineer suffered accidental injuries in quick succession, superstitious onlookers concluded the million-dollar undertaking was somehow cursed. Despite these mishaps, the cornerstone was ceremoniously laid on July 7, 1910, with Senator William M. Johnson, founder and first President of the Bergen County Historical Society, addressing the gathered dignitaries and interested public.

Construction bids for the new jail were advertised on July 10, 1910. Despite occasional delays, the dome of the new Courthouse, reportedly modeled after the U.S. Capitol Building, climbed above the cityscape in November 1910. The outer brick wall of the new prison, constructed directly in the rear of the old Courthouse, was given an acid wash on February 14, 1911. Built at a cost of $262,000, the new jail was completed nearly a year before its more challenging neighbor. 

And what would any public project of this scope be without a healthy dose of political theater and partisan bickering? Appalled at the extravagance of the design and materials, conservatives hurled accusations of bidding irregularities and excessive spending. The General Assembly dutifully created a special legislative committee on April 5, 1911, comprised of three Republicans and two Democrats, “to investigate alleged improper and unlawful expenditures in connection with the acquirement [sic] of lands and the erection of county buildings in the County of Bergen.” Democratic Assemblyman William M. Hinners, of Edgewater, was appointed its chairman. 

While fine imported marble was extensively employed throughout the work, the use of marezzo scagiola, a relatively inexpensive composite material of plaster and natural pigments, which could be easily molded to imitate marble, provoked accusations that the column shafts were “fake.” Gazing upon the rising edifice with obvious partisan sentiment, the Hackensack Republican suggested, “The layman who gorges upon and admires the fine creation of architectural and mechanical skill has reason to believe that Bergen County is getting value received in every particular. This comment is of course subject to revision by the so-called legislative investigation committee, created last winter to unearth fraud, graft and robbery in the work. As the general election is nearing, these investigations, after a more or less restful summer, may give out the results of their ruminations on the plottings of politicians.”

Just a few weeks shy of the November election, relentless probing of witnesses purportedly revealed $72,000 in extra fees paid to contractors. Investigators also learned that plans and specifications were missing from County Clerk Thompson’s office. Although a Grand Jury concluded the contract did not go to the lowest bidder, it conceded, “The value of the building and the work was equal to the expenditures ... and there was an endeavor to comply with the terms of the contract and specifications. The workmanship was good, the marble work much better than the marble specifications called for and all materials first class.” Architect Gordon steadfastly defended his careful evaluation of competing bids in awarding the contract.

Meanwhile, working under Danish sculptor Johannes Sophus Gelert’s watchful eye, carvers completed nine statues in January 1911. A gilt personification of Enlightenment Giving Power, clutching a sword and raising a torch, was soon lifted atop the dome. Allegorical representations of Honor, Law and Order were grouped atop the right corner of the portico, while, to the left, Justice and Integrity flank Truth, who is seen holding up her mirror to the world. A figure representing History is seated atop the wing wall to the left of the main staircase, balanced by a figure representing Law (Lex), who occupies her perch to the right. Encircling the rotunda, twenty-eight columns partly obscure forty frieze panels depicting the Twelve Tables of Roman Law. Architect James Riely Gordon also designed the original Seal of the County of Bergen to ornament the doorknobs. To provide a suitably stately entrance, three pairs of bronze doors were installed in a loggia or entrance portico, built of glistening Norwegian marble.

Contractors completed the building in February 1912 at a cost of $1,617,000. By May 1912, floor polishers applied their finishing touches. The antiquated Bergen County Courthouse and Jail disappeared from view in the first week of September 1912. The keys to the new courthouse were formally turned over to the Freeholders on January 4, 1913.

With trained eyes, the New Jersey Guild Association praised the Bergen County Courthouse in 1939 as “architecturally … one of the most successful buildings in the State.” Historian Frances Westervelt, the first woman to serve as President of the Bergen County Historical Society (being elected in 1914), thought the “present magnificent and imposing structure, … may very appropriately be termed a ‘Temple of Justice.’ From every side it presents a most impressive appearance and the effect upon one is that it is as enduring as justice itself.”

Those of us in present attendance look on with equal admiration and pride in what has become an undeniable symbol of America’s premiere suburban county.

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delgado June 20, 2012 at 01:39 AM
Great article. And it is now clear how history is going to repeat itself, with the Bergen Republicans in 2012 are now going to spend at least $80,000,000.00 for a court house addition.


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