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 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
- 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
- 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 Sherriffs house with its Victorian coat of grey paint.
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 Sherriffs house was constructed.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- The Morris County Coat of Arms and the county flag designed by Albert O. Halse were unveiled at the 1956 dedication.
- The flags three vertical stripes represent England, Germany and the Netherlands, honoring Morris Countys early European settlers.
- The coat of arms is based on the family crest of New Jerseys first governor, Lewis Morris.
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 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.
- Historic persons associated with the building or property.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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.
During its long history, the county courthouse has heard several famous cases, including:
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.