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Temples of Justice

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Temples of Justice
The history of courthouses offers insight into the rise of the legal profession

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In a 1786 trial held in a Massachusetts tavern, a transient basketmaker named Isaac Combs was convicted in the murder of his wife. But, before reaching the verdict that sent Combs to the gallows, jury members first mingled among the tavern patrons and discussed at length the merits of the case.

Such an informal judicial setting and process were typical in New England until the early 1800s. When English colonists first dispensed justice, courthouses as we know them function-specific buildings primarily used for legal proceedings didn't exist. Instead, prior to the late 18th century, judges held court in meetinghouses, town houses or taverns located in a community's commercial center. When courthouses did begin to appear, their construction had little to do with concerns over justice and everything to do with the desires of lawyers and architects to be perceived as trained specialists with the public interest in mind, according to Martha McNamara, who specializes in American cultural history and New England history.

The halls of justice came to represent a new vision for the organization and use of civic space a redefinition that has stood the test of time.

"Certainly justice was meted out during the 17th and 18th centuries without courthouses," says McNamara, associate professor of history at the University of Maine and author of the newly released book, From Tavern to Courthouse: Architecture and Ritual in American Law, 16581860. "But the development of courthouses as highly specialized, ritualized buildings occurred at the same time that the legal profession began to gain power and exclusive control in legal proceedings. In addition, changes to the building trades during this period also were producing the first professional architects."

Massachusetts' 1810 Suffolk County Courthouse
Massachusetts' 1810 Suffolk County Courthouse represented further specialization and was the first built of granite.

From A History of Boston by
Caleb Snow, 1825

Berkshire County Courthouse
Built in 1815, Massachusetts' Berkshire County Courthouse replaced a square, two-story wooden structure
constructed in the 1780s.

Photo courtesy of
Martha McNamara

Penobscot County Courthouse
Classic styles of architecture for courthouses, like Maine's 1902
Penobscot County Courthouse, and other civic buildings continued into the
20th century.

Law and architecture are good examples of how two specific occupational groups, both with similar agendas, shaped the landscape of 19th-century New England towns.

"Understanding the various elements of a particular landscape its architectural form, its geographical arrangement and its social construction illuminates the links between physical space and abstract ideas," says McNamara, whose research focuses on public buildings and how they are vested with political and cultural authority.

"Buildings can be used to understand the culture that produced them," she says. "They have great stories to tell, not just about wealthy and powerful people, but also about everyday life and how people thought about things like law and justice."

In particular, McNamara finds that the architecture of Massachusetts courthouses dating from 17501850 holds clues to how lawyers and architects succeeded in professionalizing their fields. Indeed, the halls of justice found in one of the country's oldest colonial settlements contain the roots of the modern legal profession.

"We have a tendency to see our physical environment as reflecting a common sense notion of the way things should be, but that's not always the case," McNamara says. "There's a relationship between physical space and concepts like professionalization. I look at how space and ideas might work together to favor a specific group of people."

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, colonial town houses, meetinghouses, and taverns were the most common venues for court sessions. In taverns, people found lodging, entertainment, business transactions and the latest news. The rooms for court proceedings were usually on the second floor and often equipped with temporary furnishings to accommodate the court, such as platforms to elevate the justices above the crowd.

The major changes in the judicial landscape came at the end of the 18th century, when courthouses began to proliferate, says McNamara. Over the course of the 1700s, trained lawyers began to appear more frequently in Massachusetts courtrooms. They did so at the risk of alienating the public, which, since the earliest period of English settlement, had looked askance at what appeared to be the lawyers' self-interested practices.

The perception was that lawyers diluted the court's emphasis on truth telling and profited from the misfortune of others, McNamara says. Nevertheless, between 1765 and 1840, the number of trained lawyers in Massachusetts alone rose from about 50 to more than 600. The first bar association created during this period set educational standards to keep untrained lawyers out of courtrooms and away from potential clients.

The fledgling legal profession needed to establish itself as legitimate in the eyes of the public, and did so effectively by claiming a unique expertise. To give that legitimacy physical expression, the legal profession advocated for the construction of specialized buildings for court proceedings, severing long-standing ties with commerce by seeking new locations for the courts. The new courthouses moved court sessions away from the commercial activities taking place in taverns and town houses.

Ironically, as the commercial economy grew, merchants increasingly needed lawyers to wade through complicated transactions and settle debts. It was all the more reason for the legal system to "create the illusion of distance from mercantile activity in order to shore up their professional claims," McNamara says. Distinguishing legal and commercial venues also removed law from the everyday and made it a little more mysterious.

The first function-specific courthouse was built in Boston in 1769. Unlike its multi-purpose town house predecessors, this new home for the courts was designed exclusively to serve the needs of the legal system. By the early 1800s, courthouses contained specialized spaces for clerks, justices and juries, and offices of probate and deeds.

Newly professionalized lawyers also reshaped court rituals in order to lend legitimacy to their legal authority, says McNamara. Rather than emphasizing public displays of authority and justice, court proceedings became performances designed to highlight the professional demeanor and legal acumen of the leading characters lawyers on the bench and at the bar.

For instance, justices now entered the courtroom through a door behind the elevated bench, rather than coming into court through the same doors the public used and walking between the rows of seats. Courtroom features such as the bar behind the lawyer's bench also served to separate the public from the proceedings.

Between 1780 and 1830, every county in Massachusetts, including the District of Maine, acquired a new courthouse. The goal was not only to reshape civic space but to mold it in monumental proportions. To design these spaces, lawyers turned to architects, who were eager to define themselves as professionals, different from members of the building trades, by designing courthouses and other public buildings.

"Professionalization is promoted when you can convince a client that you have special skills or qualities that enable you to conduct business," says McNamara. "An element that helps make that argument is a special kind of building."

Brick became a popular building material for courthouses because of concerns about fire. Good examples surviving in Maine include the Lincoln County Courthouse (1820s) in Wiscasset and Oxford County Courthouse (ca. 1805) in Paris.

In the first decades of the 19th century, granite also was used; it was a new Suffolk County Courthouse built in Boston in 1810 that led the way. Granite became a popular building material with both lawyers and architects because it conveyed austerity, permanence and endurance. The opening of major quarries in Maine provided granite for monumental civic buildings throughout New England and beyond.

By the 1830s, Massachusetts courthouses had truly become "temples of justice," McNamara says.

Courthouses, often coupled with jails in a park-like or fenced area, created a "landscape of justice," helping to symbolize the power of the legal profession.

"These landscapes defined and represented a professional ideal," says McNamara. "The new buildings, their design, their location, and their role as settings for court rituals physically articulated and supported the professionalization of both law and architecture in the early republic."

by Margaret Nagle
January-February, 2005

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