Monday, March 28, 2011


     IN JUNE OF THIS YEAR, the courthouse of our county will be 102 years old. An early architect-historian described that building as one of "monstrous pretentiousness." He stated that he much preferred the simple elegance of the original courthouse, which became (and still is) our City Hall.
     As for me, I have always totally admired that "pretentious" building from the first time I became aware of it as a young school girl who passed the courthouse almost daily. Even in those days when I did not yet grasp the function of the building, it seemed important to my childhood.
      Who could not have noticed the huge Cain and Abel statues on either side of the front entry? Or the building's big front doors, looming with authority like medieval castle gates? Walking up the steps to that entry was breath-taking, young as I was. I relished the very height of the building, topped on its dome by an eagle that brought the building's height to145 feet.
       And who knows why, but every time I passed the courthouse, I liked to make a point of checking the time on all four sides of the big clock in the dome.
      MOST OF ALL, I revered the Giant Lion that lived inside the courthouse lobby. When I first met the Lion, I was a short and stubby 8-year-old; so small that I was known as PeeWee in my neighborhood. To me, the Lion of the Marble Courthouse Fountain seemed so large and powerful. He soon became my favorite after-school adventure.
      To test my courage (or perhaps to build my courage up), I often stood before that marble masterpiece, like David facing down Goliath. I boldly stared up into the Lion's fearsome face, and as the Lion fixed his glowering gaze upon me, I would stand, unflinching, in his shadow. Somehow, every time I left his presence to begin my journey homeward, I would feel just a little taller and a little braver.
      Years later, in adulthood, I began to doubt that childhood memory; I couldn't find my Lion in the courthouse; perhaps he didn't live there anymore; perhaps he never did.
      Then one day, while visiting within that Sanctuary of the Law, I stepped into a minor niche to let a group of people pass. Suddenly I realized... I was leaning up against the marble Lion of my childhood! 
He bore the same fine visage I'd remembered, but now he seemed so very small. I was looking DOWN at him, and he was looking UP at me.
      From the vantage of a taller, grown-up me, the Lion was no longer oversized or fearsome. I laughed; it wasn't he whose size had changed; it was my own.  
      But he, smaller than the Lion of my memory, still had value to me. Quietly I thanked him for the little bit of courage he had prompted with his presence years ago, for a little girl to grow on.
 *Prominent regional architect J. Milton Dyer designed the building. The cornerstone was laid in July 1907, with no fanfare and few witnesses. (The only person to speak, apparently, was the janitor, who thought a "few wise words" were called for).
 *Interior detailing for the building, including walls, banisters, bas reliefs and other appointments, were crafted of fine Vermont marble. The rotunda was embellished with murals of historical significance, and the main corridor was distinguished by a recessed and handsomely detailed glass skylight.
 *The 1,000-lb. bronze eagle atop the dome was moulded by Samuel West, a native of our county.
 *The figural designs for the statues of Cain and Abel were by award-winning Danish-born American sculptor Merman Matzen. A Milanese carver, Paul Gandola, did the actual carving from Matzen's models. The Bedford limestone statues are each 9-feet high and 9 tons heavy, minus the pedestals.
*A brass elevator was installed, and when it was replaced many years later with a modern automated type, it was the last person-attended elevator to be found in the county. It was sad for some of us to see the old brass elevator and its attendant gone.
*Prosecutor Homer Harper was responsible for formulation of the inscribed stone tablets flanking the outside front entrance; like Cain and Abel, they were among the last exterior adornments to be attached.
*On dedication day, the marble lion-head fountain hadn't yet taken up residence in the building; it remained one of the last of the interior adornments. Designed and manufactured by Davis Marble Company, it was not installed until 1912.
 *It was 1948, or thereabouts, when the Lion was discovered by a certain little schoolgirl.