By 1851, Chicago’s boom was approaching full throttle (Ogden’s G&CU was pushing westward and the MC and MS were racing each other to the state line.)  Since the Municipal Building/Market Hall had opened in 1848, 10,000 more people had moved to Chicago, increasing its population by 50% to 29,963.  In just three short years, the city government had outgrown its new market building.  The situation with the new county Courthouse was the same.  The recent construction of the monumental new Protestant churches with their towering spires that surrounded the Square had simply dwarfed what had been the city’s first attempts at serious architecture.  A movement to build a replacement for the Courthouse had gained momentum toward the end of 1850, with committees from the city and the county entertaining all ideas of what should be done to solve the space problems of both the county and the city, as well as what to do with the Public Square.  Eventually two alternatives emerged from the discussions.  Those who believed in frugality with public funds championed a plan to sell the Courthouse Square in order to secure the funds needed to build the necessary buildings on less expensive land.  Hence, only the cost of one ornate facade would have to be incurred to achieve a monumental image.  

John M. Van Osdel, Combined City/County Courthouse, 1851. From a daguerreotype taken by Alexander Hesler on July 4, 1855, showing “Long John” Wentworth giving a speech. The view is from the northwest corner of the Public Square, looking southeast, with the steeples of the “Protestant Church Row” in the background. (Tallmadge, Architecture in Old Chicago)

Chicago’s frugal, profit-oriented citizens were overruled by a group of civic boosters, led by Francis Sherman, then the President of the Cook County Board, who sought to preserve the only public space in the center of the business district, upon which could be erected a truly monumental building, befitting the size of city Chicago was fast becoming (or more aptly phrased, the type of city the boosters had always hoped to make of Chicago).  This group favored a more traditional courthouse image: a freestanding, monumental courthouse set within a town’s square, detached from the street on all four sides.  By June 1851, Van Osdel had completed a design for each proposal, so that the necessary governmental committees could evaluate the qualities of each in arriving at a decision.  By this time, the city had formally agreed to join the county in erecting one building which would solve the space needs for both governments.  Committees from both bodies finally settled upon the more expensive, freestanding building, agreeing to fund its construction through a bond issue.  The county was to pay 75% of the project’s cost, while the city would fund the remaining 25%.

Courthouse Square and the Washington Street Protestant Church Row, 1857. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

Van Osdel’s design of the new Courthouse Square had placed the new building in the exact center of the block that not only allowed the courthouse to be seen as a three-dimensional object (as opposed to only a two-dimensional wall surface), but also reserved the greater portion of the square’s perimeter as park space, a desperately needed commodity within the all-privately owned business district (with the exception of the lakefront and Dearborn Park).  From the description and dimensions given in Andreas, the floor plan can be deduced as follows:  the plan appears to have a Classical-inspired symmetry.  The Courthouse had a 164′ overall length in the east-west direction, and a 132′ length in the north-south or front-to-back dimension.  He established the overall massing of the building with a central 100’ square block from which projected on its East-West axis two wings, the East for the County, the West for the City.  Both major rooms in the east and west wings had dimensions of 60′ by 50,’ meaning that these wings projected 32′ beyond the central square.  The entrances on the north and south wings, however, extended only 16,’ exactly half the projection of the east and west wings, imparting to the north and south facades a distinct frontal quality, that was reinforced by the flight of monumental stone stairs to the second floor on the north and south faces.  The fronts of both entrances as well as the wings were capped by a shallow pediment, a detail that he had been forced to abandon in the cost-conscious design for the First Presbyterian Church, across the Square.  To denote the entries on the north and south facades, Van Osdel once again resorted to his favorite entry motif, the Roman triumphal arch, that he extended for two stories into the third floor.  The combination of the triumphal arch and the shallow pediment bore a resemblance to Alberti’s Renaissance masterpiece, Sant’ Andrea in Mantua. 

Leon Battista Alberti, Sant’ Andrea, Mantua, 1471.

The building contained three floors.  In the ground floor (basement) was located the jail, the sheriff’s office, and rooms for the city watch-house and jailer.  The second and entry level (or piano nobile), was accessed by the stairs that led directly to a 14′ wide main hall on the second floor that ran the entire length of the building.  This floor contained the city’s offices in the north and west wings as well as an armory in the west wing.  Van Osdel symbolically elevated the Common Council room and the courtroom to the top floor of their respective wing.  (There is a sound structural reason for locating a large, column-free gathering space on the top floor of a multistoried building.  While the floor of such a space is heavily loaded with people and, therefore, requires closely spaced columns, the roof of the hall can be spanned with deep, longspan trusses that only have to carry the relatively light load of the roof.)  Both major rooms, therefore, would not only be situated “above business as usual,” but also could be formally expressed on the exterior by Roman-inspired domes (with a diameter of 20′) that roofed each space, a feature Van Osdel had already successfully employed in the Rush Medical School (see…). The rooms in the north and south wings had dimensions of 60′ by 32′ that left a 64′ square space in the center core with two stairways to the upper floor.  This space also acted as a spatial focus for the interior composition, and most likely was lit from the top by the eight Palladian windows that were located at the base of the building’s central cupola.

John M. Van Osdel. Left: First Presbyterian Church, Southwest corner of Clark and Washington, 1847; Right: Rebuilt First Baptist Church, Southeast corner of Washington and La Salle, 1853. A view from the Courthouse cupola taken by Hessler in 1858. The cylindrical water tank that will be used as the post-fire City Hall (the original Rookery) is visible at the center rear. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago: A Pictorial History)

In the design of the Courthouse’s exterior, that not only had to exude a monumental image, but also confront the Protestant churches, some of Chicago’s best-designed buildings at the time, Van Osdel wanted to employ stone, but as the local quarries at Lemont and Athens were not yet capable at this time of producing such a quantity of dressed stone, he imported all the stone once again from Lockport, N.Y.  On September 12, 1851, a grand procession reported to have been a half a mile long formed in Dearborn Park to make the three and a half block long trek to the Public Square in celebration of the laying of the cornerstone of the new Courthouse. The actual ceremony of laying the cornerstone was performed by the Acting Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Illinois Freemasons, Professor J. V. Z. Blaney.  The festivities were concluded by an artillery volley. All things considered, an impressive celebration, indeed, to mark the start of construction of the city’s most important building.


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago–I I. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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