The Neville Public Museum

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Beneath the Courthouse Dome

Tuesday, November 07, 2017
Over a year ago, the few us from the Neville were invited to a behind the scenes tour of the Brown County Courthouse Dome. The county was beginning a $1.6 million project to replace the copper on the dome. We agreed and were offered an amazing look into one of the most iconic buildings in the county. A few things stood out as we walked the catwalk behind the clock face, below the copper dome.



First, hundreds of names are etched into the bricks, some dating back to the 1930s. Although it is technically graffiti, these marking are still a piece of the building’s history. It meant something to them to leave their mark in this historic place. Second was the astonishing engineering of a clock installed in 1911. The large clock face, hands, and mechanics of the special Seth Thomas Clock that still run today were mesmerizing. Another part of the project was to replace the wooden hands. When the wood gets wet they expand and become heavier which throws off the time on the face.





As work progressed we devolved a great relationship with the crew. They would call us when they pulled something they thought we might want for the museum’s collection. We now have in our possession parts of the copper dome, original wood clock hands, and a brick signed in 1937. We didn’t just collect these things to add them to our massive collection but to interpret the courthouse as a symbol and historic place in our upcoming exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of Brown County. Our Brown County is a celebration of two centuries of history and the people who have called it home. The courthouse has been a part of that story since 1911.

In 1908, plans and construction began for the new courthouse in downtown Green Bay on the same block as the new Federal Building. Architect, C.E. Bell was chosen. He was well known for designing grand governmental buildings. We even have his original blue prints in our collection! In 1909, the county board approved $8,000 more for the project to fund the murals that still grace the halls of the building.



As construction concluded, plans for a major unveiling of the new building were set into motion. On January 13-14, 1911 an estimated 10,000 people attended the public opening reception. The local newspaper reported that people were overwhelmed by the building’s detail and beauty.

The courthouse has gone through different renovations throughout the years including the addition of an elevator in 1940. Walls were painted over and some of the historic beauty marks of the building were lost. In 1976, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places to protect its historical nature and to honor its architectural place in Brown County history.

During the 1980s concerns over space and care of the building grew. In 1988, a $10.6 million project began that included additions to the south and west sides for Clerk of Courts, the Detention Center, and the Law Enforcement Center as well as restoration and renovation on the interior and exterior of the building. The project took more than four years to complete. In January 1993, 82 years after the first public reception, an open house was hosted for the public to view the completed project.

In 2008 and 2009 the lantern that sits on the very top of the dome was replaced. Finally this year the county finished the project replacing the copper on the dome as not just a way to invest in the key symbol of Brown County, but to help launch our 200th Anniversary where we will reflect on how far we’ve come and where we’re headed.

Lisa Kain
Curator
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