Temples of Justice
The history of courthouses offers insight into the rise of the legal
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,
1658–1860. "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."
Suffolk County Courthouse represented further specialization and was
the first built of granite.
From A History of Boston by
Caleb Snow, 1825
Built in 1815,
Massachusetts' Berkshire County Courthouse replaced a square,
two-story wooden structure
constructed in the 1780s.
Photo courtesy of
Classic styles of
architecture for courthouses, like Maine's 1902
Penobscot County Courthouse, and
other civic buildings continued into the
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 1750–1850 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
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
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
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
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
"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
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.