Vol. VI, No. 3, Winter 1993


Preservation Corner

A Preservation Struggle

The Phelps County Courthouse, 1860-1993

by John Bradbury



John Bradbury is with the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, Rolla. Currently the President of the Phelps County Historical Society, he has been active in the "Old Courthouse Preservation Committee", described in this article.

On June 4, 1991, the citizens of Phelps County approved a sales tax proposal dedicated to fund construction of a new courthouse in Rolla. Scheduled to be completed sometime in 1993, the new building will replace the county's present courthouse, an antebellum Greek Revival style structure.

The decision to build a new courthouse came on the sixth attempt in forty-five years. The old building was clearly showing its age. Its construction had begun in 1860, three years after Phelps County was created and Rolla was named the county seat. The courthouse was the second public building to be erected. The first was the county jail, which indicated the priorities in the rough and tumble railhead town. Malefactors could be tried anywhere, but their punishment required a good stout stone building.

Construction of the courthouse was well underway by the end of 1860. The structure rested on locally quarried dolomite blocks and the walls were made of the first bricks molded and burned in the Rolla area. The building was under roof but the interior remained largely unfinished when the Civil War brought an end to all normal business in the county. Union troops seized Rolla in June 1861 and for a time army quartermasters stored hay and oats in the edifice. Later military officials established offices and the army hospitalized sick soldiers in the building. When the war ended the county billed the United States government and was paid for the use of the building for twenty-four months at fifty dollars per month.

Changes to the courthouse began in 1881 with the addition of vault wings on the east and west sides to house county records. In 1912 the county abandoned the 1860 jail and a jail wing was added to the courthouse. Installation of electrical lines occurred at about the same time.

These betterments were the last to be made until after World War II. Reduced revenues during the Depression and wartime austerity measures left the building shopworn and dilapidated. In 1950 the belfry was removed, drastically altering the structure's appearance. The Phelps County Postwar Development Committee identified a new courthouse as the county's first priority, but voters wanted to recuperate from the lean war years and thought a county hospital was a more pressing need. Bond proposals were defeated in 1946, 1959, and twice in 1960. After the last defeat county officials gave up hope and during the 1960s and 1970s embarked on a series of expediencies euphemistically termed "improvements." These included installation of a drop ceiling in the courtroom, remodeling the jail wing to provide office space, and construction of a brick addition to the west side which enveloped the vault wing and destroyed the symmetry of the building. A "mezzanine" floor was jury-rigged between the first and second floors to create additional space for the probate division. The additions further compromised the architectural integrity of the original structure.

Phelps County, Missouri courthouse, Rolla, ca. 1885.

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The county made do with a building which increasingly did not meet the needs of local government. Each additional box of county records and every new piece of office equipment, including computers, further strained an already overtaxed courthouse. Finally, the issue of access for handicapped citizens, required by federal law in 1990, could no longer be ignored. A bond issue for a new building was put before the voters in June 1.990, but the issue met with another resounding defeat. Chastened but still game, the Commission came back with a proposal for a smaller, less costly building. It was a plan which the voters could accept, which they did in June, 1991.

The approval of a new building did not settle the fate of the 1860 courthouse. The fortunes of the old and new buildings had always been linked, a connection which may not have been good for either. The proposals put forth in 1946, 1959, and 1960 would have resulted in the destruction of the antebellum structure. This did not appeal to voters who appreciated the historical nature of the building, nor to those who thought that the old building was all that the county officers deserved. Photographs of obviously unsafe electrical wiring, unsanitary conditions in the restrooms and jail, and neglected boxes of county records--used to illustrate the need for a new court-house--provoked instead a storm of protest regarding the county's lack of stewardship. The deplorable conditions of the building used to support the campaign came back to haunt the county commissioners.

The same sentiments existed during the 1990 drive. This time, however, there was an additional target for the wrath of the fiscally conservative--part of the moneys generated were to be earmarked for restoration of the old courthouse, similar to the arrangement in neighboring Pulaski County. This part of the proposal elicited angry comments from those who had no use for historical endeavors of any kind, as well as from the "asphalt people" who tended to think of any tract in terms of additional parking space. There were also those who thought the proposed building too extravagant and those who believed the county's citizens might afford either new construction or preservation, but not both.

Which of the variables carded the most weight will never be known. For the last, and successful, attempt the county scaled back on the size of the new building and dropped the matter of preservation. More than that, the county commissioners promised that no additional revenue would be spent on the old building once the new courthouse was occupied. Instead, the county's "historical interests" would be given an opportunity to save the 1860 courthouse. If such efforts did not materialize or were unsuccessful, the county would feel free to raze the 130-year-old structure. For whatever reasons, voters approved the 1991 proposal and construction of the new courthouse began on a site directly west of the old building in 1992.

Rolla, Phelps County, Missouri, probably late 1860s. New courthouse at left.

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Phelps County courthouse under construction, 1860.
Phelps County courthouse as it appears today.

The county expects to occupy the new building by the end of 1993. This will be the first critical date in the timetable if the old courthouse is to be preserved. The "historical interests" referred to in the 1991 campaign had expressed enough interest toward preservation that the presiding commissioner supported the formation of an ad hoc citizens committee to spearhead the preservation effort. The first public meeting was held on September 26, 1991. The consensus was that the courthouse should be preserved as an historic artifact and as a public place. The ad hoc group formally adopted the name "Old Courthouse Preservation Committee," and began raising operating funds, developing plans for the continued use of the building, and discussing with the county commissioners the transfer of the courthouse to the Committee once the new building was occupied. Preliminary plans are to restore the exterior of the building and the main courtroom as they appeared in 1881. Office space on the first floor may be rented, both to generate income and to encourage people to visit the historic building during regular office hours. Space to expand the Phelps County Museum, currently across the street in the Dillon log cabin, and to accommodate other public groups, may be available.

Although the Committee has not yet gained legal possession of the building, several thousand dollars have already been raised through sales of prints depicting the building as it appeared in 1881, by "Christmas At Court Square" festivities, and by a benefit auction. The fund-raisers have also been effective in bringing people to the court square and publicizing preservation plans. Although the money realized is only a small part of the sum which will be required to restore the building to its 1881 appearance, those dedicated to preserving the old courthouse are encouraged by the community support they have received.

Meanwhile, the courthouse was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. Because of the unfortunate alterations over the years, the building could not qualify on the basis of its architectural integrity. However, the importance of the building in the early history of the county, its connection with the Civil War, and the fact that it was one of only three antebellum buildings in Missouri still used as a governmental center, made it a strong candidate for National Register status. With the help of Steve Mitchell of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the application was crafted to emphasize these features. In January, 1993 the Committee received official notification that the Phelps County Courthouse has been accepted for inclusion on the National Register.

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