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Requiem For A Courthouse

May 2024
8min read

The bleak future of Hudson County’s lovely old seat of government illustrates the threat to our heritage of beauty from a generation that neither builds nor remembers well

Hudson County, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, exemplifies the urban decay and exurban sprawl that are rapidly transforming America the beautiful into America the ugly. Where the county touches the Hudson, the Kill van Kull and Newark and Upper New York bays, its oil refineries and chemical plants spew out wastes that have contributed to the disappearance of the shad and have killed the vegetation along the shore. Where it stores the sky with the smokestacks of its factories making footwear, elevators, paints, clocks, and pencils, the air is darkened with clouds that have helped make this one of the dirtiest spots on earth. Where its towns have risen—Bayonne, Hoboken. Union City, and Jersey City—the once-green land is covered with a crust of gray. Indeed, the more than half-million inhabitants of Hudson County live in an environment that fits perfectly Lewis Mumford’s characterization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial city: “The two main elements in the new urban complex were the factory and the slum. By themselves they constituted what was called the town: a word that describes merely the fact that more than twenty-five hundred people are gathered in an area that can be designated for postal communication with a proper name.”

Scattered here and there in Hudson County is evidence that someone remembered better models for building, and the models were almost always those carried in the hearts and heads of the English and Germans who settled here in the last century. Most of them are gone now, but fragments of their handiwork remain in a row of reel brick Victorian houses with ample stoops, large windows, and handsome cornices; in a church with a graceful spire; in a brewery built in a strong, sure, vernacular style. But inevitably these have all been damaged in some way: a few houses in each row have been sided with pale blue or pink artificial stone, the church has a bright electric sign over its door, the brewery has half of its windows bricked up and its walls plastered with advertisements.

Deserted by the old English and German middle class—and even by the Irish who succeeded them as the dominant group—the towns of Hudson County are like abandoned shells left behind. In Jersey City, the county seat and, with more than L 5o,ooo, the largest town in the county, the evidence of this is most noticeable. The newcomers—most of them Italians, Negroes, Poles, and Puerto Ricans—know that the people whose houses they live in have fled to better places, and their one great hope is that they too will be able to move on and out. With its population falling, its factories being used more and more as warehouses, its financial plight constantly worsening, Jersey City has a pervasive air of impermanence. It is like a detention camp of refugees waiting to go on to new homes in another land.

In the midst of this wasteland, with a little of the surprise a nomad must experience upon seeing the pyramids for the first time, one comes upon the old Hudson County Courthouse. Whereas everything around it seems to have been constructed on the principle that what is best for the bulldozer is best for the country, the courthouse appears to have been built to last forever. And of course it was. Its gray walls are of Maine granite; its window frames and the lanterns flanking its doors are of bronze; its high Corinthian pillars, wide steps, and low, flat dome are massive.

The courthouse interior is a rush of color—pearl gray and green-veined marbles, golden light fixtures, yellow, green, and blue paint. Standing in the great central court, one looks up the three stories of the magnificent rotunda to a dome whose outer rim is painted with the signs of the zodiac and whose center is an eye of stained glass worthy of Tiffany. One feels—as one does in the rotunda at the heart of the Capitol in Washington—the dignity of government and the permanence of law. The official brochure describing this central rotunda says that it is “reminiscent of one of the baths of imperial Rome.” The reference to Rome is apt, for the Hudson County Courthouse is an outstanding example of a period of American building which took its inspiration from Roman forms.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century America became vastly richer. One estimate is that the gross national product increased by twenty billion dollars in the years between 1883 and 1893. The names we associate with wealth—Vanderbilt, Gould, Carnegie—were the creators and creatures of this new and affluent age. Suddenly the traditional styles of American building—Georgian, Federal, Gothic Revival—were deemed incapable of providing the grandeur and spaciousness required by this burgeoning American beeragc. And since the Morgans were being compared to the Medicis, why not, the architects reasoned, build for them in the style of the Renaissance?

The first great architect of the American Renaissance was Richard Morris Hunt, who in 1881 inaugurated the style when he built a French chateau for William K. Vanderbilt on New York’s Fifth Avenue. In the years that followed, he used the Renaissance idiom for such outstanding buildings as Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island; George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore at Asheville, North Carolina; the original portion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and even for the base of the Statue of Liberty. Close on the heels of Hunt came the great architectural triumvirate of Charles Folien McKim, William Rutherford Mead, and Stanford White. When the railroad magnate Henry Villard came to them for a New York town house, they gave him an Italian Renaissance palace; when the Pennsylvania Railroad commissioned them to do a station, they produced a version of the Baths of Caracalla; and when Columbia University asked for a library, they put up a larger-than-life-sized Pantheon.

In addition to their commitment to the architectural forms of the Renaissance, these men were dedicated to the Renaissance concept of a group of artists working together to create something beautiful. McKim, Mead, and White’s Italianate Boston Public Library, for example, contains murals by John Singer Sargent, Edwin A. Abbey, and the Frenchman Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, as well as sculpture by Daniel Chester French and the brothers Augustus and Louis Saint-Gaudens.

The high-water mark of the American Renaissance came with the Columbian quadricentennial celebrations at Chicago in 1893. Over the protests of those who wanted the exclusively American architecture of Louis Sullivan to set the tone for the fair, Chicago was captured by the European-inspired Renaissance architects who transformed the swampy lake front into a White City of colonnades, domes, triumphal arches, caryatids, colossal statues, and formal lagoons. As one critic said, “It was all McKim, White and Gold.” And in keeping with the architects’ principles, hundreds of American artists were given employment decorating the buildings of the Fair.

When the fair closed, the architects scattered across the country to construct more Renaissance-style Newport cottages, post offices, libraries, city halls, and courthouses. And as the buildings were finished, the artists moved in to embellish them. Perhaps the height of this creative frenzy was reached at the Library of Congress—built in 1897—where some fifty painters and sculptors beautified almost every square inch of the interior. But there is no better example of the architecture and art of the period than the Hudson County Courthouse.

Construction began in 1906, and the building was opened on September 20, 1910, after some three million dollars had been spent. The architect, Hugh Roberts, was a native of Jersey City who had built houses for the county’s wealthy citizens, as well as some commercial buildings. In an article published at the time of the dedication, Roberts expressed perfectly the idea embodied in the building: “The granite exterior is rich and imposing.” This is exactly what it was supposed to be—a rich and imposing monument to the Protestants of German and English descent who then controlled Hudson County. Their conservative credo is carved over the main portal for all to see: “ PRECEDENT MAKES LAW; IF You STAND WELL, STAND STILL .”

Inside, the courthouse was embellished by some of the most sought-after American muralists of the turn of the century: Francis D. Millet, Charles Y. Turner, Edwin Blashfield, Kenyon Cox. In the most important room in the building—that of the county’s freeholders, its governing body—the noted illustrator Howard PyIe filled the upper halves of the walls with scenes of the Dutch and English in early New Jersey and New York. These, together with the rich dark panelling, an elaborate English Renaissance ceiling, and a bold wrought-iron chandelier, make the Freeholders’ Room one of the handsomest legislative chambers in the United States. Even in the four courtrooms on the top floor—which are not decorated with murals—Millet achieved a sumptuous effect by the use of marble wainscoting and pilasters, stained-glass ceilings, and mahogany and oak woodwork.

The courthouse was to be one of the last monuments of the Germans and English of Hudson County. Less than a month after its opening, the reformer Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey and swept Democrats into office throughout the state. Among those who ultimately benefited from Wilson’s triumph was the young city hall custodian, Frank Hague. Within seven years Hague was boss of Hudson County and mayor of Jersey City. He kept both jobs for over thirty years. His rise to power symbolized the final triumph of the Democratic Irish-Catholics who constituted the bulk of unskilled laborers in Hudson County. The Irish hegemony continues to rule, aligned with the Poles and other groups in a coalition against the Italians.

Boss Hague, who had an affection for the old courthouse and had its exterior cleaned after the Second World War, died in 1956. In place of his highly visible and autocratic rule there are now the anonymous bureaucrats who in Hudson County, as in other places throughout the United States, have superseded the colorful bosses of the Ed Kelly, Jim Curley, Frank Hague era. The new men may be more honest than the old bosses were, but the type of civic buildings they have erected, from Augusta to Chicago to Fresno, shows that they have the imagination of accountants. Adjacent to the old courthouse, the officials of Hudson County have put up a new county building. It was originally intended merely to provide additional office space, but recently it has been enlarged to house the courts as well.

The new building could be a prison, a bank, an insane asylum. There is nothing about it that proclaims the grandeur of free government or the dignity of justice. Instead of murals it has Muzak; instead of a soaring central court, it has squalidly low corridors; instead of the beauty of carved marble, it has dusty plastic plants. And now—almost empty—the old courthouse is threatened with demolition.

Its loss would be particularly sad for Hudson County and for Jersey City. In The Image of the City , a book published by the Joint Center for Urban Studies, a co-operative venture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, Jersey City was one of the places discussed. The Center found that, in sharp contrast to Boston, where the citizen related his life and experience to the State House, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the Common, the South End—and had a richer existence because of it- the citizen of Jersey City had only a vague idea of the boundaries of his city, little knowledge of any landmarks, and almost no pride in his town. “This is really one of the most pitiful things about Jersey City,” a woman told an interviewer. “There isn’t anything that if someone came here from a far place, that I could say, 1Oh, I want you to see this, this is so beautiful.’” The courthouse, even now, could be that beautiful thing.

In 1961, Theodore Conrad, a native of the county and one of America’s best-known builders of architectural scale models, ran unsuccessfully for councilman in Jersey City. Conrad’s principal campaign issue was a plan he had drawn up to save the old courthouse. Under this plan, the county would transfer ownership of the courthouse to Jersey City for use as a city hall. (The present city hall is literally falling down.) In front of the courthouse Conrad proposed a mall, part of the cost of which would be met by the Greenacres Fund, a state program that finances the creation of open spaces in cities and counties. Placed around the mall would be other civic buildings and a museum. This plan would have saved the old courthouse building and would have given to Jersey City and to Hudson County the civic core they so badly need. Although Conrad was later appointed a commissioner on the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, his council defeat deprived friends of the old courthouse of a spokesman among elective city officials. And no aspect of Conrad’s plan has been implemented.

When, during the First World War, the Germans destroyed the Cloth Hall at Ypres, an angry humanity cried out against the barbarism of the Hun. Now the great monuments of America’s past—Charles McKim’s Pennsylvania Station, in New York City, Louis Sullivan’s Schiller Building in Chicago, Alexander Jackson Davis’ Harral-Wheeler House in Bridgeport, Connecticut—come down, and the silence is rarely disturbed by anything other than the monotonous thud of the wrecker’s ball. The only excuse that we can give—that of economy—is a pitiful one for the richest nation in the history of the world. “What is happening now is hardly more than what happened in Rome in the Dark ages,” the architectural historian Edgar Kaufmann has written. “Men tear down great works, and put up the best they can.”

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