Morris County Courthouse

Introduction

The Morris County Courthouse

The Morris County Courthouse
The Morris County Courthouse
  • The historic Morris County Courthouse is the traditional seat of Morris County law and government.
  • The 1827 structure continues to serve the residents of all 39 municipalities.

This online exhibit looks at the history, historic elements, purpose, and changes made over time to the courthouse.

A New Courthouse for Morris County

The Old Courthouse

The Old Courthouse
The Old Courthouse
  • The first courthouse was built of logs in 1755 near the center of the Morristown Green.
  • It served also as a jail until 1770 when the Freeholders purchased the building from the Presbyterian Church for £5 (English currency).
  • The second building, pictured above, was located on the north side of the Green. Note the well and sweep (right) and pillory (left).
  • In 1776 a second story, cupola, and bell were added.
  • This courthouse and jail served Morris County until 1827 when the present brick building was completed.

Thoughts for a New Courthouse

  • As Morris County’s population grew, so did the need for expanded facilities.
  • The Freeholders first met on July 7, 1825 to discuss the possibility of building a new courthouse, jail and offices.
  • Architect Joseph M. Lindsley of Morristown and architect-builder Lewis Carter of Chatham were chosen to design and build the new courthouse.

New Location and Design

New Design
New Design
  • The freeholders purchased land two blocks from the Green on Washington Street, for the sum of $100 from James Wood and his wife.
  • The cornerstone is a simple brownstone block inscribed with “1827”. It was formally laid in July, 1826.
  • The cost of construction was listed in The Morristown Palladium of Liberty, a local newspaper, as $20,000.

19th Century Changes

Changing Faces

Changing Faces
Changing Faces
  • Over the years the courthouse has changed its exterior appearance on two occasions.
  • In the mid-nineteenth century, the entire exterior was painted grey.
  • This c.1860 image shows the courthouse prior to the construction of the Sherriff’s house with its Victorian coat of grey paint.

Late Victorian Era Changes

Late Victorian Era Changes
Late Victorian Era Changes
  • Prior to the Civil War a wing was added facing Court Street. It was separated from the courthouse by a jail yard.
  • The Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Grand Jury met in the County Hall on the second floor.
  • Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the grey paint was removed and the Sherriff’s house was constructed.

Exterior Growth

Exterior Growth
Exterior Growth
  • Nineteenth century photographs and sketches show the iron fence atop a stone wall on the Court Street side, and at sidewalk level on Washington Street.
  • By the turn of the century the fence had been removed and replaced with the present puddingstone wall.

20th Century

Almost Lost

Charles W. Parker
Charles W. Parker
  • Prior to its 100th anniversary in 1927, the courthouse faced demolition when some citizens wanted to replace it with a modern building.
  • The movement to preserve the courthouse was headed by Justice Charles W. Parker, 1862-1948 (see right), who authorized the construction of a Hall of Records building on Ann Street.

The Roaring 20s

The Roaring 20's
The Roaring 20’s
  • The courthouse was repainted white and cream in the mid-1920’s in preparation for its 100th anniversary.
  • The cream and white color scheme remained for thirty years until it was removed for the rededication of the courthouse in 1956.

The Fabulous 50s

  • Built before 1900, the Sheriff’s house was connected to the main courthouse when the entire complex was remodeled and enlarged in 1956.
  • This picture from the 1950s shows a side door and porch between the Sheriff’s house and courthouse.
  • The gallows were located behind the courthouse.

Courthouse Addition

The Fabulous 50's
The Fabulous 50’s
  • By 1954, it was necessary to integrate the various buildings into one unified complex. The Freeholders authorized a new wing (on Western Avenue) which was dedicated in 1956.

Growing Pains

  • The courthouse was expanded during the twentieth century through building additions and land acquisitions.
  • The original tract of 1.2 acres eventually included the entire block.
  • Later acquisitions included the block between Court Street and Schuyler Place.

Changes, Changes and More Changes

Courthouse Addition
Courthouse Addition
  • The Washington Building on Schuyler Place was purchased in 1958.
  • A new Hall of Records was built in 1969 and re-dedicated as the Administration and Records Building in 1989.
  • The Ann Street annex, built in 1971, was also incorporated into the courthouse complex.

Morris County Flag

Morris County Flag
Morris County Flag
  • The Morris County Coat of Arms and the county flag designed by Albert O. Halse were unveiled at the 1956 dedication.
  • The flag’s three vertical stripes represent England, Germany and the Netherlands, honoring Morris County’s early European settlers.
  • The coat of arms is based on the family crest of New Jersey’s first governor, Lewis Morris.

Architecture

Historic Site Marker

Historic Site Marker
Historic Site Marker
  • A brief description of the courthouse’s architectural importance is described on a county historic site marker as being one of the finest examples of a Federal style public building in New Jersey.
  • The marker was erected in 1976 by the Morris County Heritage Commission.

Historic Elements

Cupola
Cupola
  • Historic elements are more than just the building fabric. They include:
    • Architect or builder
    • Purpose for which the building was constructed
    • Event (s)
    • Historically significant event (s) that took place at the property.
    • Person(s)
    • Historic persons associated with the building or property.

Exterior Features

  • The only exterior features not original to the building are the double front entrance doors to the main lobby and the weather vane.
  • The weathervane was installed in the 1920’s; it was modeled after the plow on the New Jersey State seal.

Cupola

Justice
Justice
  • The domed gold-leafed cupola surmounts the roof directly above the front pediment.
  • Its corners are defined by four sets of Ionic columns.
  • Louvers on each side are enclosed within keyed arches.

Justice

  • Above the entrance of the courthouse in the pediment is a statue representing Justice.
  • The scales in her left hand represent a balanced judicial system.
  • The sword in her right hand symbolizes the protection of individual rights.
  • Unlike many of her counterparts, Morris County’s Justice is not blindfolded.

The Judge’s Bench

Judge's Bench
Judge’s Bench
  • Courtroom #1 is often described as the jewel of the courthouse.
  • It has changed little after more than 180 years of continual service.
  • Window-height paneling on the east wall incorporates four fluted Ionic pilasters that create a backdrop for the judge’s bench.
  • The bench is supported by two Ionic columns and finished with a palmetto frieze.
  • The four large windows on the north wall are original to the building.
  • The windows on the south wall were removed during additions.

Courtroom #1

Courtroom #1
Courtroom #1

Some restoration work was done in 1955 but all of the important features remain:

  • The west wall’s gallery retains its original pews.
  • Entry to the gallery is through the original low doorway, which still has its original lock.
  • The original staves used by bailiffs to maintain order are stacked in their racks on each side of the courtroom.
  • The room features columnar radiators from the original central heating system.

Famous Trials

During its long history, the county courthouse has heard several famous cases, including:

21st Century

The Courthouse Today

The Courthouse Today
The Courthouse Today
  • The building is composed of two principal stories plus attic and high basement, and four gable-end chimneys.
  • Only minor changes have been made to the original structure.
  • The original fireplaces and chimneys still remain, though unused.
  • Unfortunately, all early floor plans, architectural drawings, and other specifications no longer exist.
  • The courthouse continues to serve the citizens of Morris County.

About this Exhibit

  • This exhibit was curated by Margaret Shultz.
  • Historic images of the courthouse are part of the Morris County Heritage Commission’s archival collection.
  • A special thank you to Mr. Dan Beards for the use of his photographs.
  • Other images are from the County of Morris website and/or are in the public domain.