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History of the Historic Washington County Court House

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The following article was originally written by Tony Wappel and published in the Spring, 2005 issue of Flashback. Modifications and additions have been made where appropriate.

The Historic Washington County Court House

Earlier Courthouses

The Historic Washington County Court House is the fifth county courthouse. Prior to the construction of the 1904 courthouse, Washington County’s other courthouses were all on the Fayetteville square on or near the site of the Old Post Office. Captain Samuel Marrs constructed the first courthouse in 1829 for a cost of $49.75 (Circuit Court Record A, page 10). It was between what is now Block Street and the Washington County Courthouse, 1868-1904Bank of Fayetteville and consisted of a 20 x 20 log structure. The fate of the original structure is unknown. In 1837, Washington County constructed a brick courthouse for $6,398.75 (County Court Record A, page 147). Little is known about its design or builders. It was apparently destroyed by fire. George Baker built the county’s third courthouse in 1854 for $6,900 (County Court Record C, pages 450-451). It burned in 1862 during the Civil War. Fortunately, county officials had removed the county’s records to Fincher’s Cave near Black Oak prior to hostilities. As a result, Washington County is only one of a handful of Arkansas counties that did not lose its early 19th century records during the Civil War. Alexander Hendry built Washington County’s fourth courthouse in 1868 for $22,000 (County Court Record D, pages 611-614). This brick structure was demolished in 1905 after the now Historic Washington Courthouse was built.

Planning a New Courthouse

In addition to County Judge Millard Berry, there were many other key players in the planning and building of the Historic Washington County Court House. The Washington County Levying Court (Quorum Court), the City of Fayetteville, Public Building Commissioner J H McIlroy, architect Charles L Thompson, and builder/contractor George Donaghey also played major roles. Elected County Judge in 1900, Berry took office in 1901. One of his first and foremost goals was to build a badly needed courthouse, as the 1868 facility was too small for the growing county. As reported on October 8, 1901, the Courthouse & Jail Committee of the Levying Court (consisting of Thomas J Campbell, W O Woolford, and T J Fellows) reported that “the courthouse is unfitted for the business of the county, unsafe and not worthy of repair, therefore, be it resolved.....that we proceed with such haste as is consistent with our financial ability to erect a new court house on some suitable site in the City of Fayetteville.....and offer for the sale of the present public square.....and the proceeds..... be used in the construction of the new building.” Said resolution was adopted by a unanimous vote of the Levying Court (County Court Record Q, page 130). The Levying Court then levied one mill for a new Court House Sinking Fund for the construction of a new courthouse (County Court Record Q, page 132).

At an October 8, 1902 meeting, the Levying Court recommended 1st the building of a neat substantial courthouse, modern and up to date in architecture, which will be the pride of our county seat and Washington County; 2nd that such house be built at a cost not to exceed $75,000; 3rd a committee of three discrete and practical businessmen consisting of the County Judge and two styled a Board of Court House Commissioners to whom shall be committed the duty of receiving plans and specification, the awarding of contract for building.....said courthouse; and 4th the adoption of a City of Fayetteville Resolution offering $10,000 toward building said courthouse in exchange for an office for Mayor, City Clerk, City Engineer, and Chief of Police and use of basement. Justices C W Walker and S S Graham were selected to act with the County Judge as the members of the Board of Court House Commissioners (County Court Record Q, pages 255, 259-260).

On October 20, 1902, the City of Fayetteville passed Ordinance # 128. The City of Fayetteville agreed to transfer $5,000 [reduced from $10,000] to Washington County’s New Courthouse Sinking Fund. In exchange, Washington County agreed to transfer ownership of the Public Square to the City of Fayetteville for a period of ninety-nine years. Originally used as a park, the Public Square would become home to the existing Old Post Office in 1911. Washington County also agreed to give the City of Fayetteville two rooms in the basement of the new courthouse for a period of twenty years. Perhaps the most important agreement between the City of Fayetteville and Washington County was to locate the new courthouse within one and a half blocks from the square (County Court Record Q, pages 283-285).

By the end of 1902, Judge Berry agreed to purchase fifteen different parcels of property on the southeast corner of College Avenue and Center Street just north of the Historic Washington County Jail and just south of a former site of a Butterfield Stage Coach Stop for approximately $5,500 (Fayetteville Weekly Democrat, November 6, 1902). Former property owners included local builder A M Byrnes, William Walker Bishop, Clem Boles, and L W Niman. Prior to the building of the National Guard Armory in 1929 and the American Legion Building in 1940, the area between the courthouse and jail was used as a public park. Commenting on the site selection, the Fayetteville Democrat said “the building will present an imposing appearance from the Public Square on the prettiest street in the city.....Another desideratum will be the removal of the shacks that have been an eye sore from a time of the oldest inhabitant knows not when, and the substitution of flowers, trees and a grassy town” (Springdale News, November 7, 1902).

During early 1903, Judge Berry, along with Justices Walker and Graham, began touring Arkansas and Missouri to inspect newly constructed courthouses. By the Fall of 1903, Berry had contacted typhoid fever and was confined to his Springdale home at the time of the October 5, 1903 Levying Court meeting. Judge Berry’s absence notwithstanding, Justices agreed to carry on his plans (per Berry’s written communication). Apparently, one plan was to raise the New Courthouse Sinking Fund millage, as the Levying Court raised it from 1 to 1.5 mills (County Court Record Q, pages 379-382).

By early 1904, Judge Berry appointed J H McIlroy Commissioner of Public Buildings. McIlroy’s job was to submit a plan for the construction of the new courthouse, including dimensions, building material, and cost estimates. On June 15, 1904, McIlroy submitted his report to the Judge. McIlroy had chosen Little Rock architect Charles L Thompson to draw up plans and specifications for the new courthouse. The estimated cost for the new courthouse was $100,000.

Building a New Courthouse

Historic Court House postcard, 1905Judge Berry approved Thompson’s plans and then advertised for a contractor to build the new courthouse (County Court Record Q, pages 434-435). McIlroy received two bids on July 9, 1904. Conway, Arkansas builder G W Donaghey bid $98,500. Fayetteville, Arkansas builder A M Byrnes bid $115,750. “G W Donaghey being the lowest and best bidder and having agreed to do the work on the lowest and best terms, I [McIlroy] did accept said bid..... of G W Donaghey and on the 15th day of July, 1904...did enter into a contract with said G W Donaghey for the building...” On July 18, 1904, Judge Berry approved, confirmed and ordered the contracts let between J H McIlroy, Charles L Thompson, and George W Donaghey (County Court Record Q, pages 451-454).

On Saturday October 1, 1904, under the direction of John T Hicks, Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, nearly 2000 people witnessed the laying of the cornerstone. Attending the ceremony were numerous local, state, and national dignitaries. Congressman Hugh A Dinsmore presented a history of the previous courthouses. A copper time capsule was placed behind the cornerstone. It housed copies of county documents pertaining to the building of the courthouse, copies of all newspapers published in Washington County, a copy of the World’s Fair edition of Harper’s Weekly, coins from 1904, rosters of local, state, and national officials and a roster of members of the Masonic Lodge (Fayetteville Democrat, October 6, 1904).

On October 24, 1904, Commissioner McIlroy hired D C Wurtz of Ft Smith as Supervising Architect to supervise day to day construction activities. Washington County paid Wurtz $125 a month for his services (County Court Record Q, page 520). On this same day Judge Berry ordered and adjudged that McIlroy use any and all excess stone, known as “blue grit,” Blue Grit Stone (actually turns brown)used on the courthouse foundation to build a decorative stone wall along College Avenue between the new courthouse and the existing jail to the south(County Court Record Q, page 521). According to former Circuit Clerk Lloyd McConnell (1955-1966), he had heard that the limestone came from Madison and Carroll County. (The freshly cut or cleaned stone has a blue tint to it but turns brown.) One of the laborers who hauled stone was a young man by the name of H L Baker, who later became County Judge in 1927 (Northwest Arkansas Times, December 29, 1967). On October 21, 1904, McIlroy entered into contract with J F Moore, the proprietor of the People’s Furniture Store of Fayetteville, to furnish the new courthouse at a cost of $1325 (County Court Record Q, page 524). The People’s Furniture Store also supplied the county with new carpeting ranging from $1.16 (Prosecuting Attorney’s Office) to $1.58 (Circuit Judge’s Chamber) a yard, linoleum at $1.30 per square yard (Sheriff’s Office), and 138 window shades costing $100. As the City of Fayetteville did not yet have a sewer system, the county also had to install a separate system for the new courthouse. The Duggan Brothers installed a septic system for $383.60. As for water, the Fayetteville Water Company submitted the lowest bid to furnish all water needed for sewerage, hydraulic elevator, and all other purposes in the new courthouse, the County Jail, and for public stock water for $500 per year (County Court Record Q, page 530).

Historic Court House, circa 1910On March 3, 1905, about two months before completing his latest building, George Donaghey said “The new courthouse is not only an architectural ornament for Fayetteville, but it is a great ‘ad” for the city and county and stands out prominently where it may be seen for miles...It is a monument to the public spirit and enterprises of the people is one of the factors which explain why it is that Fayetteville is growing so rapidly and substantially....” (Daily Democrat, March 3, 1905). On April 25, 1905, Commissioner McIlroy reported to newly elected County Judge W E Williams that as far as he could tell, work on the new courthouse was complete with only minor modifications and G W Donaghey receive a full and final settlement. Judge Williams took charge of the property on May 4, 1905 (County Court Record R, pages 115 and 119). Although Williams did not officially take charge of the building until May 4, the Spring Term of the Circuit Court first met in the new building about a week and a half earlier on April 24. There was to be no smoking in the courtroom and cuspidors were scattered throughout the rooms and halls to avoid spitting in the floors of the new building. “Benton County has heretofore had the honor of having the best courthouse in the district, but she has to give way now” (Springdale News, April 28, 1905). A new courthouse symbolized a new and modern way to keep records, as this also marked the first typewritten entry for an official Circuit Court order (Circuit Court Record R, page 424).

The First 50 Years

south stairwellThe Richardsonian Romanesque style courthouse has a basement and three floors connected by grand stairways and an elevator. The basement or first floor, as it has become known, originally housed the Fayetteville Mayor, City Clerk, & Vault, Grand Jury, Witness Room, Toilet Room, and two additional unassigned offices and one additional unassigned vault. The second floor originally housed the Circuit Clerk, Circuit Clerk’s Vault, County Clerk, County Clerk’s Vault, County Judge, Sheriff & Collector (the Sheriff and Collector were the same person in the those years), Ladies Room, and one unassigned office. The second floor also had covered porches on the west1 of 12 coal burning fireplaces, north, and south sides of the building. The third floor originally housed a single Court Room, three Jury Rooms, Ladies Witness Room, Prosecuting Attorney, and Judge’s Chamber. (In 1904 there was one Circuit Judge and Chancellor who shared the single courtroom and Juvenile matters were handled by the County Judge.) The floor of the Court Room intentionally slanted so that observers could better see and hear the  Judge. Off of the Judge’s Chamber was a “quick escape” stairwell which exited at the Circuit Clerk’s Office one floor below. The third floor also had an uncovered porch on the est side of the building. The fourth floor originally had a balcony overlooking the courtroomoriginal ceramic tile flooringm and two jury rooms. The other space was unassigned. It also houses a narrow stairwell leading up to the courthouse tower, bell, and clock. Other interesting building wide features include over 60,000 hand laid round ceramic mosaic floor tiles in the public foyers and corridors, coal burning fireplaces with colorful glazed brick fronts in each office, a boiler in the sub basement that eventually provided steam heat, and approximately 20 inch thick fireproof vaults. (Ironically, all of the vaults originally had windows for lighting and ventilation and became even less fire proof as the county added more an more electricity to the building over the next 100 years.)

One of the first activities upon moving into the new courthouse was to sell the old one. On May 31, 1905 George Stockwell was appointed Commissioner to sell the [1868] courthouse. Upon advertising for the sale of the building, Stockwell reported that A F Wolf was the highest bidder, paying $415 for said building and $16.70 for its fixtures (County Court Record R, page 134). Upon removal of the 1868 courthouse, the site was turned over to the City of Fayetteville, who shortly thereafter deeded the lot to the federal government for use as a Post Office. Another issue facing Washington County in 1905 was the fact that it still owed Donaghey $86,000. The Levying Court remedied this by raising the sinking fund to 2 mills to pay Donaghey over the next several years (County Court Record R, page 233).

The earliest, as with the most recent, years of the historic courthouse’s history were marked with mechanical and maintenance issues. The first thing to go wrong was the hydraulic elevator, as it was discontinued in 1906. Apparently, the cost of water needed to operate it was too expensive. (County Court Record R, page 335). In 1910, the Levying Court allocated money to repair the roof (County Court Record S, page 617). In 1913, the Committee on the Court House and Jail reported that the roof still leaked and that there were problems with birds in the attic. They recommended soldering the roof along the cone and screening the ventilators to keep the birds out of the tower(County Court Record U, page 67). In 1916, the upper floor of the courthouse was furnished with cots for hung juries (County Court Record U, page 388). Also, starting in 1916, the Fayetteville Public Library began leasing space in the basement of the courthouse. They remained there until 1927 (Flashback, Volume XIV, Number 3, pages 3-4). In 1917, the Committee on the Court House and Jail reported that the basement floors were rotting and the floors and walls were separating in the City Water Department’s Office (southeast corner of first floor). They recommended replacing basement wood floors with concrete ones(County Court Record U, page 484). During the administration of County Judge George Appleby (1917-1919), the entire courthouse was re-decorated by local interior designer Paul M Heerwagen (One Hundred Years of Fayetteville, Campbell, 1928).

In 1920, the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned New York artist William Steene to paint a mural honoring those Washington County men who died during the recent World War. The central figure in the mural is the Angel of Victory, who represents the Womanhood of America and Washington County. She holds two tablets inscribed with the names of those Washington County men who gave their lives during the “War for Human Rights.” The mural was unveiled with greWorld War I muralat fanfare on July 5, 1920 in the loft of the Ozark Theatre next door and was moved to its present location on the second floor of the Historic Washington County Court House shortly thereafter. Through numerous fund drives, the citizens of Washington County donated the majority of the $1400 needed to paint, hang, and frame the mural (Fayetteville Daily Democrat, March 24, 1920 and July 5, 1920).

It is difficult to imagine this today, but during the early 1920s, Washington County had extra space in its courthouse. Per a 1902 agreement with the City of Fayetteville, the city was occupying a portion of the basement of the courthouse. In 1922, County Judge J E Dowell and Fayetteville Mayor Allan M Wilson formalized this occupation by signing a lease in which the City of Fayetteville would lease two rooms in the southeast corner of the courthouse for a period of five years for $40 a month. The county would provide heat, light and water for the Police Court, Mayor’s Office, Council Chamber and City Water Plant (County Court Record V, page 162). In 1926, Washington County leased the northwest corner office in the 2nd floor, as well as floor space in the hallway, to the Pollard-Pettigrew Abstract Company for $12.50 a month for five years. The abstract company was required to vacate when the Grand Jury met or if the County Assessor needed space (County Court Record V, page 374).

By 1927, Washington County was running out of office pace and requested the City of Fayetteville and all other non-county offices to vacate the building. Washington County needed space for its School Superintendent, Farm Demonstrator, Home Demonstrator and for other purposes (County Court Record V, page 396). The City of FaNational Guard Armory, constructed 1929yetteville refused. On October 10, 1927 County Judge Henry L Baker ordered the Sheriff to remove from said rooms the city officials and employees of the City of Fayetteville, together with all of their records, books, papers, furniture and other property(County Court Record V, page 450). The city did not budge and appealed to the Circuit Court. Circuit Judge J S Maples favored the County Judge and said that although the County Judge has the right to rent un-used county property to non-county offices, he also has the right to terminate such agreements when the county needed the space (Circuit Court Record X, page 375). The city was gone by the end of 1928 (County Court Record V, page 530). Although the county was running out of space inside the courthouse, it still had a large lot to the south. On March 1, 1929, the Quorum Court agreed to donate a part of the county grounds to the Arkansas National Guard (County Court Record V, pages 568-570).

The county still faced structural problems during the 1920s. In 1922, the ceiling over the front entrance leaked (County Court Record V, page 118) and still in 1925 (County Court Record V, page 308), and still again in 1926 (County Court Record V, page 360). On June 1, 1929 the Courthouse Committee reported that unsanitary conditions existed in the lower level toilet and, probably to no one’s surprise, that the roof of the courthouse leaked and needed immediate repair (County Court Record V, page 588). On November 12, 1929, the Quorum Court appropriated $500 for repairing the roof, $250 for window repairs, and $900 to paint the exterior of the courthouse (County Court Record W, page 18).

Perhaps because of the Great Depression, the county resigned itself to lack of finances. Not much was said of the courthouse’s structural needs during the 1930s. For an unknown reason, the Quorum Court held its January 2, 1934 meeting in the recently constructed National Guard Armory. At that meeting Judge Homer E Jackson requested a resolution be drawn up in the interest of remodeling the courthouse(County Court Record W, pages 458-459). During the January 7, 1935 meeting, the Quorum Court noted it had become aware that an abstractor by the name of B B Bronson had been using space in the courthouse as his private office. Furthermore, the County Judge needed to demand rent from him or have him vacate the office (County Court Record X, page 24). In 1936, the Federal WPA (Works Progress Administration) paid a visit to the Historic Washington County Court House. In addition to surveying county records, the WPA recommended better storage systems and transcribed several deteriorating record books. In their report, the WPA said records in all offices were carefully and neatly kept. Furthermore, “records were accessible to the public...and the public encountered uniformly courteous treatment and a willingness on the part of the officials to be of service at all times.” (WPA Guide to County Records, 1937, page XI). Their only concern was that the Circuit Clerk had no more space in which to store their records. Their vault was already overcrowded and there was very little room left in the Collector’s Vault, where the Circuit Clerk had been sending their older records (WPA Guide to County Records, 1937, page XIII).

The WPA’s 1936 visit also shed some light on the arrangement of courthouse offices in the 1930s. The basement of the courthouse was home to the Assessor (southeast corner), the Treasurer and Vault (middle east side), Collector and Vault (northeast corner), WPA Project Office (northwest corner), Men’s Public Restroom, and Welfare Office (southwest corner). According to Ann Wiggans Sugg, the Washington County Library established offices in this floor around 1936, with Helen Hudgins Wiggans being the first county librarian. They remained there until the early 1960s, when they began sharing space with the Fayetteville Public Library. The second floor was home of County Judge (southeast corner), County Clerk and Vault (middle east side), Circuit Clerk and Vault (northeast corner) Agricultural Extension Office (northwest corner), Public Toilet, and Sheriff (southwest corner). They also referred to the elevator as the “old elevator shaft,” which makes us realize the elevator was still inoperable at this time. The third floor was the home of the Court Room (east side), the Chancery Judge (northeast corner), County Health Office (noLynn Shelton Post VFW, constructed 1940rthwest corner), Woman’s Toilet, and Superintendent of Schools (southwest corner). The WPA did not draw a sketch of the fourth floor, indicating the floor was not occupied.

In 1940, Washington County sold off the remaining property between the courthouse and jail. On May 3, 1940, the Lynn Shelton Post # 27, Department of Arkansas, American Legion purchased the southernmost part of the lot nearest the Washington County Jail (County Court Record Z, page 133). On May 28, 1940, Washington County donated the easternmost part of the lot to the Arkansas National Guard. They needed a garage for a place in which to store their vehicles and equipment (County Court Record Z, page 147).

On September 15, 1945 County Judge George F Caudle declared the necessity for a new courthouse and jail.” The County Courthouse and Jail of Washington County, Arkansas is old, unsanitary, badly in need of extensive repairs, and too small to serve the county purposes, and is wholly unsuitable for the housing of public records and the transaction of the public business....”(County Court Record B1, pages 90-91). County Judge Caudle hired local architect T Ewing Shelton to prepare and file plans and cost estimates for a new courthouse and jail to be located just west of the square behind the Campbell Bell Building. His estimate of $250,000 was put to a vote on October 23, 1945. With a nearly three to one margin, voters rejected Judge Caudle’s plans. Some of the reasons given for voting against the proposal were that the county still owed money on the 1904 courthouse, that they never finished the 4th floor, and that the elevator never worked, thus requiring many residents to be carried up the stairs by court bailiffs. Simply put, citizens could not trust the county with a new courthouse when the county could not take care of the one they had (Northwest Arkansas Times, October 22-24, 1945). It is interesting to note that one year later voters overwhelmingly approved construction of a county hospital [located on North Street] (County Court Record B1, page 282). After losing the vote, the Quorum Court at its meeting of November 19, 1945 recommended the County Judge enter into contract with some competent engineer to furnish and/or re install shelving in the Circuit Clerk’s vault to the extent records can be properly kept for many years to come, that they dispose of all wooden material likely to burn, and that they discard loose papers stored on the fourth floor. Furthermore, the Quorum Court directed the County Judge to re-roof, for yet another time, the courthouse to stop its leaks and to install new lighting fixtures for the courthouse (County Court Record B1, page 116).

On August 8, 1947 County Judge Witt Carter ordered that the front entrance of the courthouse be altered so that College Avenue could be straightened out and widened. At that time, the front steps rested on an island that jutted out into what would now be the northbound lanes of College Avenue (County Court Record B1, page 414). Around 1948, the courtroom was split in two. In a 1999 discussion with Ada Anderson (Judge Butt’s Court Reporter), Anderson told me the courtroom was not split in 1945, when she was hired as Judge John Butt’s Court Reporter, but that it had been split before 1951, when Judge Thomas Butt began serving his fifty year term as Chancellor. The fourth floor balcony overlooking the courtroom was closed off sometime in the 1970s. Circuit Judge Maupin Cummings occupied the larger of the two courtrooms and Judge Thomas Butt occupied the smaller courtroom. In addition to Judge Thomas Butt, the longest serving Circuit Judges and Chancellors to serve in the Historic Washington County Court House included Circuit Judge J S Maples (1905-1918), Chancellor T S Humphreys (1905-1916), and Circuit Judge Maupin Cummings (1947-1978).

On May 12, 1948, a Grand Jury met and made a report to the County Court on the Fayetteville Sewer System, the County Court House, the County Jail, and the County Home (Civil Record 27, page 286a). As for the courthouse, the Grand Jury stated there is “considerable lacking on the Janitor’s part in keeping....clean both men’s and ladies’ restrooms....and that the condition should be corrected for the general welfare of the public.” The Grand Jury was also very concerned about fire hazards. They recommended the elimination of all wooden shelving in the clerks’ vault, the removal of clutter from the attic, and the removal of worthless artifacts from the boiler room.. One other concern was that the courthouse windows needed painting. They did compliment the county on the improvement of the front entrance. [I assume they are referring to the re-construction of the front steps of the courthouse.]

In 1951, another Grand Jury recommended that the county fix the roof of the courthouse(Civil Record 28, pages 34-35). Indeed, some maintenance problems have been perpetual. The greatest leak-related problem was on the northeast corner of the building and had damaged the floors and walls in the offices below, including the Chancery Court Room, the Circuit Clerk’s Office, and the Collector’s Office. The Grand Jury also suggested that the floor be fixed in the dark room of the Circuit Clerk’s Office, that the Circuit Clerk be provided with more office space, and that the County Clerk install metal roller shelving for storing books. Finally, the Grand Jury stated the courthouse appears to be receiving poor janitorial service and that it needs to be improved. It is interesting to note that one year later in another very abbreviated report, the Grand Jury reported that all offices and rooms in the courthouse were clean and in proper condition. The only recommendation was a request passed on from Circuit Clerk Richard Greer that he have additional record storage space (Civil Record 28, page 411).

The Second 50 Years

The second fifty years of the courthouse’s history encountered maintenance problems, as it had during its first fifty years. However, over the last half century, the Historic Washington County Court House seemed to be plagued with a more serious space problem and a problem it had never faced before–parking. It may have been possible that the Historic Washington County Court House remained in tip top shape for a few years after the 1952 Grand Jury met, as little evidence to the contrary exists. However, a grumbling about space problems re-emerged. In 1963 County Judge Arthur L Martin recommended a new courthouse and jail be built (County Court Record I1, pages 353-357). He also suggested the county buy the National Guard Armory next door. No action was taken until many years later.

On January 8, 1964 a Grand Jury, which had been meeting since November 7, 1963, returned unto the County Court its report on the county buildings and shop(Civil Record 35, pages 523-527).
The Grand Jury noted several problems. “The County Clerk’s Office is entirely inadequate. The vault needs to be made fireproof and more efficient space needs to be provided. Tax Records were found to be located in about three different offices. This was due to the fact that space was not available....The Circuit Clerk’s Office is sorely overcrowded and there is no space for records. The vault is not fireproof. A very large window is quite evident and some of the valuable records in this office are stored in rooms without some instances valuable records are presently missing...The County Agent’s Office is in the same situation with records being stored in the hallway...The Assessor’s and Collector’s Office need to be located in such space as would permit them to be adjoining because of the intra-dependent nature of the work...and since both offices use many of the same machines and records...The County Treasurer’s Office is in the same condition as other offices, their vault being in very poor condition. The Machine Office has no vault and records are not stored in a fireproof area. Many of these records are practically irreplaceable and we were advised that many of these records remained on an open porch for over one year...” According to Circuit Clerk Kathleen Harness (1995-2000), who began working in the Circuit Clerk’s Office in 1964, the Machine Office is where, before the days of Xerox machines, original documents were copied onto white on black photostatic pages for recording in county record books. As for the third floor, the Grand Jury believed the entire floor should be devoted to court purposes, that there needed to be more adequate restroom facilities for both men and women, and that there needed to be a conference room for both plaintiff and defendant attorney. The Grand Jury did not mention the fourth floor of the courthouse.

In its general recommendations, the Grand Jury noted that “the Washington County Court House was constructed in 1904 to serve the county with a population of 34,000 persons. With no increase in space today the same courthouse serves Washington County with a population of 65,000 persons.” They stated that “fire proof vaults” were no longer fireproof to store county records and that records stored in hallways and other unsuitable places were leaving records exposed to fire and the will and wisp of persons inclined to go through such files. Nevertheless, county officials were doing the best they could given the present inadequacy of their various offices. The Grand Jury recommended that “county authorities take immediate steps to purchase or lease additional space to alleviate crowded working conditions...possibly the Armory from the State, or as near as possible to the present county court house...” They also recommended the county look into upgrading its electrical and heating systems.

The most visible change to the courthouse occurred in 1965. In that year, the clock tower steeple had become structurally unsafe and County Judge Gene Thrasher had it removed. Another change that took place in the 1960s was the closing in of the second floor porches on the north and south sides of the building. This provided additional space for the offices of Circuit Clerk and County Judge. In 1966 Washington County began leasing the gravel parking lot to the northeast of the courthouse from Houston Taylor Motors for $200 a month(County Court Record L1, page 198). In 1967, the Quorum Court authorized Judge Thrasher to purchase the National Guard Armory Building for $60,000 (County Court Record L1, page 352). Washington County finally acted upon Judge Martin’s original 1963 suggestion in December, 1968 shortly before the arrival of County Judge Vol Lester. Throughout its history as a county building, the National Guard Armory was one time home of the Juvenile Court and Parole Office, Extension Service, Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the Revenue Office. The basement was home of the Washington County Jail and Sheriff’s Office between 1972 and 1988.

Like many who preceded him, County Judge Vol Lester was aware of the need to build a new courthouse. On August 11, 1969, he hired local architect Paul Young, Jr to draw up plans for a new courthouse and jail (County Court Record N1, page 60). Unfortunately, nothing is known about these plans. A new courthouse notwithstanding, Judge Lester was responsible for many of the improvements to the aging Historic Washington County Court House as well as the purchase of other county buildings. In 1969 he purchased the first fire alarm system. Installed by D & D Electronics Company, Inc of Fayetteville for $2460, the alarm system included fire sensors necessary to adequately cover the entire building, wire, power supply, alarm buzzers on each floor, four pushbuttons to activate the systems, and an identification panel (County Court Record N1, page 35). In May, 1970, Washington County agreed to pay Arkansas Western Gas $39.00 a month for a 5 ton gas air conditioning unit (County Court Record N1, page 235). In 1972, Judge Lester agreed to place the courthouse on the National Register of Historic Places. This later gave the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program a conservation easement on the front facade of the building, meaning no alterations could be made unless first approved by them (Land Record 1206, page 650).

However, the most dramatic changes that took place during Judge Lester’s administration came in 1973 and 1974. In 1973, the Circuit Courtroom was remodeled. Remodeling included the installation of new carpeting, a new sound system, a new dropped ceiling with recessed lighting, and modernistic furniture. On September 28, 1973, Washington County established its present day Office of Emergency Services (County Court Record P1, page 352). According to Assistant County Administrator John Gibson, a lot of federal money was floating around in the 1970s for Emergency Services offices to build shelters to withstand all types of nuclear blasts except a direct hit. On November 21, 1973, Washington County signed a contract with local architect Warren Segraves and the Brennan Boyd Construction Company of Fayetteville to build not only a bomb shelter complete with backup generator and supplies, but also a new vault addition in which to store county records (County Court Record Q1, pages 164-165). Former County Clerk Marilyn Edwards (1977-2002), who began working for the county in 1969, told me many people referred to the vault addition as the “lean to addition” so the old courthouse could have something to help it quit leaning to the east. Completed in 1974, this four level addition was attached to the east side of the courthouse. It housed the Office of Emergency Services (first or basement level), Treasurer, Assessor, and Collector Vaults (2nd level) and County Clerk and Circuit Clerk Vaults (3rd & 4th levels). Oral history suggests this addition was to provide enough space to store county records for thirty years. Also, the existing HVAC system for both the courthouse and addition was installed that year to replace the numerous electric heaters and window air conditioning units that had filled the building. Total cost for the addition and new HVAC systems was approximately $253,000, of which $60,000 came from the federal government (Northwest Arkansas Times, October 7, 1973 and April 28, 1974).

According to a Grand Jury Report released during the construction of the vault addition, the Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville is a disgrace. “The time has come for a new courthouse in Washington County...The building is generally deteriorated and provides only cramped space for county offices...Offices are poorly arranged, having been created in corners and hallways until the building now resembles a rabbit-warren...Fire safety is inadequate, county records are stacked helter skelter...parking is inadequate, there are no separate rooms for witnesses, and space for juries to meet...poke out from corners and from behind doors.”  The Grand Jury ‘recommended that County Judge Vol Lester stop spending additional money on the structure and take immediate action towards building a new courthouse...” Judge Lester responded by saying even if voters support a new courthouse, it would be several years before it could be completed and that in the meantime improvements needed to be made to address current needs of the county, which included space for a new Circuit Judge and Chancellor. However, the Grand Jury recommended that the current courthouse be preserved because of its great historical and architectural value (Northwest Arkansas Times, April 1 and April 28, 1974).

Steeple Replacement, 1974Washington County’s earliest attempt to preserve the outward appearance of the building came in 1974 when it replaced the spire removed in 1965 for safety reasons. On September 8 a five man crew from the 273rd Aviation Company, Heavy Helicopter, Ft Sill, Oklahoma eased the largest helicopter in the western world into position above the courthouse tower shortly before 8:00 am Sunday, then rocketed skyward as the mission was accomplished. The copter left behind an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 applauding Fayetteville residents and a number of county officials breathing a sigh of relief. “It was a tremendous sigh of relief when that helicopter took off and I saw the steeple sitting there,” said County Judge Vol Lester. “It ended months of worrying about how we were going to get the thing up there.” Major Jimmie Ford, commanding officer of the unit, said though the team has madebackside of clock, 2010 several airlifts of heavy equipment to the tops of towers and buildings, this was the first time they had placed such a structure on a building in a heavily developed civilian area. Many spectators noticed the steeple was crooked, leaning slightly to the west. After the helicopter left, workmen used a winch to pull the steeple in place. The entire Fayetteville Police Department and Washington County Sheriff’s force were aided by 30 members of the National Guard in helping keep spectators a safe distance from the hurricane-like winds produced by the rotor wash of the massive aircraft. There were no injuries, though most of the crowd were pummeled by the winds and some dirt and flying debris (Northwest Arkansas Times, September 9, 1974). Shortly before replacing the steeple, the county also replaced the dark face of the clock with translucent material and lighted the clock room so the clock would be illuminated at night.

In 1975, the fourth floor of the courthouse was remodeled to accommodate a courtroom, judge’s chambers, and a jury room (Northwest Arkansas Times, January 25, 1976). The first judge to use this space regularly was Chancellor John Linebarger, who was first appointed Special Circuit Judge in 1975 and then elected second division Chancellor in 1977. Other work completed in 1975 included the closing off of the courtroom balcony, paneling of all offices, installation of suspended ceilings, and replacing deteriorating windows. One other not so notable event occurred on October 10, 1975. Deputy County Clerk Marilyn Edwards issued a Marriage License to William Jefferson Clinton and Hillary Diane Rodham in the County Clerk’s Office on the second floor of the Historic Washington County Court House. One never knows who has or who will grace the historic courthouse with their presence, no matter how short-lived it may have been.
Courts Building, 1976-2000
During the U S Bicentennial, the Marion Chapter of the DAR commissioned Fayetteville resident Gertrude Gump to clean and restore the World War I mural. The restoration project was financed through a fund drive led by Fayetteville school children. In July, 1976, the county sprayed the exterior of the building with bleach to try to restore the building’s original light color. In 1976, Judge Lester established a central copy station for the county in the foyer of the second floor (Northwest Arkansas Times, May 28, 1976). Prior to installing direct dial phone lines in the early 1990s, this facility was also used as a central switchboard facility. In December, 1976, Washington County purchased the old Montgomery Ward/Clark-Eoff Furniture Store building across the street from the courthouse (Land Record 920, page 53). Until 2000, it was known as the Washington County Courts Building and at various times was home of Juvenile Court, Circuit Court’s II Division, the Public Defender, Child Support Enforcement, Quorum Court, and the Washington County Law Library. Local architect Warren Segraves was responsible for redesigning the interior of this building. The county considered building a bridge to connect the Courts Building to the courthouse but was deemed too costly. 

Central Switchboard and Copy Desk, 1980sWith Judge Lester’s purchase and renovation of the National Guard Armory and the Montgomery Ward building, the Historic Washington County Court House had increased breathing room, as many county offices were now housed in buildings other than the courthouse. However, by 1979, when Charles Johnson became County Judge, the offices that had remained in the courthouse were, along with the county’s population, growing by leaps and bounds. The County Clerk, Circuit Clerk, Assessor, Collector, and Treasurer had already outgrown their new vault addition. Offices such as Emergency Services, Personnel, Environmental Affairs, Purchasing, and Comptroller had become or were soon to become a larger part of county government and were competing for any and all available office space. As in the past, the county managed to utilize the space it had, regardless of cramped quarters, and continued calling the historic courthouse home for nearly twenty more years. Over the next several years, County Judge Johnson restored the public spaces of the interior of the historiFreedom Shrinec courthouse, including stairwell and corridor woodwork, cast iron pillars of the first and second floor lobbies, and removal of infill offices from corridors. In 1984, Washington County began replacing windows on the third floor (County Court Record Y1, page 438). Also in that year, the Johnson Plumbing Company, the Ozark Floor Company, and the FVietnam War soldierelix Thompson Company were awarded a bid to renovate and upgrade the public restrooms (County Court Record Y1, pages 709-711). In 1985, the county upgraded the fire alarm system installed in 1969, and for a whopping $2963, painted the interior of the courthouse (County Court Record Z1, page 255). In 1986, the Fayetteville Exchange Club sponsored the installation of the Freedom Shrine in the basement lobby. The display consists of framed replicas of famous and significant documents in American history such as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and surrender documents of World War II. In 1987, Prairie Grove resident Keith Black sculpted a statue depicting a Vietnam War soldier. Entitled “Lets Move On,” this statue was donated to Washington County for permanent display and has complimented the Freedom Shrine since the late 1990s.

On August 15, 1989, Judge Johnson entered into an agreement with the architectural firm of Witsell, Evans & Rosco of Little Rock, along with David Powers of Springdale, to conduct a courthouse rehabilitation master plan (County Court Record D2, page 683). Completed on November 28, 1989, this work continues to guide Washington County’s efforts to restore the Historic Washington County Court House. Ironically, on December 12 of that same year, voters overwhelmingly passed a measure allowing Washington County to purchase the First South Centre at 280 North College Avenue (County Court Record D2, page 857). Voters supported the county’s move not only because of increased space for county offices, but also be Washington County Courthouse, 1992-presentcause of increased parking and easier access to the courthouse. (There was no hill to climb!) Constructed in 1986, the First South Centre originally housed a savings and loan, a dentist office, a computer store, a radio station, an oil company, and other offices. Approximate purchase price for the 85,000 square foot building and 250 space parking lot was 3.3 million dollars. Offices began relocating to the old First South Centre in 1991, the first being the Assessor, Collector and Revenue Office. Chancellors Thomas Butt and John Linebarger, as well as Circuit Judge Kim Smith, moved to the new courthouse in 1993. Judge Storey left the historic courthouse in March, 1994. In June, 1994 Washington County dedicated the First South Centre as the Washington County Courthouse and the old courthouse then became known as the Historic Washington County Court House. The last offices to leave the historic courthouse were the County Judge and County Clerk, who left on the fall of 1995.

Restoring the Historic Washington County Court House

School Board Office, 2000
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, many members of the Quorum Court were in favor of  completely closing or selling the historic courthouse. Upkeep and utility bills were too expensive and the building was no longer practical for the modern day needs of a growing county. The courthouse bell was turned off for a few years because of costs in maintaining the bell’s malfunctioning timer. On more than one occasion the bell rang at odd times of the day or rang out more hours than were in a day. However, contrary to popular belief, the disappearance of all major offices from the courthouse was not the Historic Washington County Court House’s death knell. Upon the departure of Circuit Judge Storey, the third floor became home of the Washington County School Board, who had previously resided there until 1983. The third floor also became home of the 4 County Solid Waste District. During the late 1990s the U S Bankruptcy Court held its hearing in the third floor courtrooms.

County Clerk's Vault, 2000Circuit Clerk's Vault, 2000Although the County Clerk, Circuit Clerk, and Treasurer had all vacated the old courthouse by the end of 1995, they did not have enough space in which to store their historic records and many of their court files. As a result, they maintained a staff of one to supervise records use at the historic courthouse. In 1997, County Judge Johnson established the Washington County Archives.Bell, 2010 Located on the second floor, its mission was to establish and manage a county archives and to coordinate the storage of all other inactive records stored at the historic courthouse. In 1999, under the direction of newly elected County Judge Jerry Hunton, this office merged with the solo staff member originally hired to assist the County Clerk, Circuit Clerk, and Treasurer. In addition to the Archives, a few other County Judge’s departments remained at the historic courthouse, namely the offices of Emergency Services, Environmental Affairs, and Planning. In 1999 the Sheriff’s Office began using the fourth floor for training purposes and a portion of the basement for evidence and inmate records. Also, in 1999, Judge Hunton re-activated the courthouse bell.

2000 was a big year for Washington County. Under the leadership of Judge Hunton, a new Juvenile Courts & Detention Center and a new Operations & Maintenance Center were constructed on theSouth Campus Justice Complex and Road Department, 2000 south side of Fayetteville. In addition to the Road Department, the Operations Center included space for the Offices of Emergency Services, Environmental Affairs, Planning, and the 4 County Solid Waste District. Also, in 2000, the State of Arkansas was closing all of the county school boards, including Washington County’s. These new facilities, together with the departure of the Washington County School Board, freed up space on the historic courthouse for expansion of the county archives on the first and second floors and for relocation of Circuit/Chancery Judge Mary Ann Gunn to the third floor. Before relocating to the third floor, Judges Hunton and Gunn spearheaded a near complete restoration of the third floor courtroom and office space.

In 2003, Judge Hunton and the Washington County Quorum Court created the Historic Washington County Court House Advisory Board to make recommendations on the restoration and rehabilitation of the historic structure. Members were Timothy C Klinger (Chairman), John Dupree, David L Powers, Lorel D Aviles, and William R Kincaid. The advisory board followed two chief principles. “The Old Washington County Courthouse is a significant structure and a symbol of the county that should be preserved and maintained for the benefit of this and future generations of county citizens and all maintenance and preservation efforts for the Old Washington County Courthouse of any nature should be performed in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation with the guidance of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.” The board recommended three primary objectives–“Secure the exterior of the building from further deterioration, restore/renovate the building interior to provide a safe and properly functioning working environment for active use by county employees and visitors, and provide an environment to showcase the history and legacy of Washington County for its citizens and future generations.” The advisory board suggested the county continue using the Witsell, Evans, Roscoe, and Powers rehabilitation master plan submitted to the county in 1989 as a guide to restoring the historic structure. Total estimated cost to restore both the inside and outside of the building was 4.5 million dollars. In 2004 Judge Hunton announced the selection of the Polk Stanley Architects, Ltd as the firm to guide Washington County through the renovation and restoration of the Historic Washington County Court House. (Washington County Advisory Board Report)

Lawrence Guist & Circuit Judge Mary Ann Gunn with 1904 time capsuleBeginning in November, 2004, Washington County, under the leadership of Circuit Judge Mary Ann Gunn, observed a months long celebration honoring the 100th birthday of the historic courthouse. The Washington County Historical Society sponsored a lecture series on the history of Washington County and other related topics. The Shiloh Museum installed a photograph display on the history of the courthouse. However, the most notable event was the opening of the 1904 time capsule and the dedication of a new time capsule to be opened in 2055. On Saturday May 7, 2005, approximately 2000 people attended the official centennial celebration on the front steps of the courthouse. In order to make room for attendees, portions of College Avenue/U S Highway 71B were closed and traffic re-directed to the west of the courthouse. This was the first time in modern history that anyone remembered closing the busy highway.

Exterior Restoration, 2006In 2006 and 2007, County Judge Hunton oversaw restoration of the exterior of the historic building. Work included replacing and/or refurbishing windows and gutters, complete tuck pointing of the building, as well as painting of trim. The most dramatic restoration work was the re-opening of the 2nd floor balconies, which had been enclosed since the 1960s. In addition to Judge Hunton and the Washington County Quorum Court, major players included Buildings & Grounds Superintendent Ron Wood, and Polk Stanley Wilcox Architect John Dupree. Bossler Contracting of Siloam Springs, Arkansas oversaw the work and the main sub-contractor was Mid-Continental Restoration of Ft Scott, Kansas. Total cost for the exterior restoration was approximately $1,500,000.

Interior Restoration, 2010In 2009 and 2010 County Judge Marilyn Edwards oversaw restoration of the interior of the historic courthouse. Excepting architecturally significant features such as stairwells, mosaic tile, and fireplaces, the interior of the building was completely gutted. Original design of the building was left intact. Work included installation of new wiring, new plumbing, an energy efficient heat and air system, energy efficient lighting, re-plastering of ceilings and walls, and restoration of woodwork detail. The most dramatic restoraInterior Restoration Crew, 2010tion was the re-creation of the single large courtroom on the third floor and the re-opening of the courtroom gallery on the 4th floor. Also, the 2nd floor hallways were re-opened so as to fully extend to the north and south balconies that were restored in 2006 and 2007. In addition to Judge Edwards and the Washington County Quorum Court, major players included, once again, Ron Wood and John Dupree. The generalHistoric Court House artifacts 2 contractor was Milestone Construction Company of Springdale. Several local sub-contractors too numerous to mention here also participated in the restoration. Total cost for interior restoration was approximately $3,000,000. Over the course of the interior restoration numerous artifacts were located and are on display in the Archives. One of the more interesting finds was over a dozen vanilla extHistoric Court House after exterior restoration, 2007ract bottles from the 1920s. Also displayed throughout the building is antique furniture original to the historic courthouse.

Although the Historic Washington County Court House has been plagued by maintenance and space problems since its construction, the historic structure has been spared the wrecking ball and remains structurally sound. Also, even with the loss of the majority of county offices, the Historic Washington County Court House has remained a vibrant county facility in which citizens can research yesterday’s county news in the archives and where they may redress grievances in the newly restored courtroom housing Judge Mary Ann  Gunn. In paraphrasing George Donaghey’s words of 1905, I hope a restored Historic Washington County Court House will continue to serve as an “ad” not only for itself, but for the city and county and as a monument to the public spirit and enterprises of the people who have called Washington County home since its earliest days.