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Palace of justice: A marvel of its time, Grand Forks Courthouse strives for historical preservation

Grand Forks County Clerk of Court Rebecca Absey walks around the cast-iron dome of the Grand Forks County Courthouse. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Rebecca Absey, clerk of court for Grand Forks County, looks out underneath the dome of the historic County Courthouse. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Grand Forks County Courthouse staff take pride in maintaining the historical integrity of the building, but they also strive to keep up with modern technology. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

The residents who built the Grand Forks County Courthouse wanted it to be a "palace of justice," former District Judge Kirk Smith said.

The details throughout the building—the ornate carvings along the walls, original brass railings, the marble trim and the cast-iron dome that features paintings from the early days of settlers—pay tribute to that accomplishment, he said.

"When it was decided to build a courthouse, they wanted it to be first-class," Smith said.

It's been 105 years since the cornerstone of the European-style courthouse was laid in 1913. Almost 80 percent of the voters approved the then-$200,000 project—plus $25,000 for furnishing—in the November 1912 election. A U.S. Department of Labor inflation calculator places the combined value at almost $5.66 million.

The county has taken care to maintain the building's historical integrity, Clerk of District Court Rebecca Absey said. It's a place she can't get enough of, she said.

"This building is timeless," Absey said. "It withstood the test of time."

Making a statement

The county built the courthouse on the same spot the previous one burned to the ground. Dedicated in 1915, the current courthouse was built to withstand any threats from fires, Absey said.

"The wood trim actually isn't wood," she said as she knocked on one of the tin panels.

The settlers wanted the building to be a centerpiece for the county that would hold all of its agencies, Smith said. The district judge who served Grand Forks for about 23 years said other counties in the country had European-style courthouses. The design in Grand Forks pays homage to the settlers of North Dakota, with the dome featuring paintings that represent directional points—north, south, east and west.

"It was a style in vogue throughout the country," he said.

North Dakota has a history of making statements with buildings, Smith said. He pointed to the State Capitol Building and its 21-story tower, ornate hallways and interior structure dedicated to the agriculture industry.

"That was a statement in its time."

Modern updates

Over the years, county offices moved to other facilities until the courthouse was dedicated exclusively to law-related offices—the state's attorney's office, clerk of court, court administration, etc.

The county has tried to keep up with modern technology while maintaining the historical aspects.

The building got an interior makeover in the mid-2000s to bring out the original colors of the building. The orange squares in the floor pay tribute to the copper vents, while the dark yellow and dark gray paint brings out the grain in the marble and wood-like panels.

The clerk's office was furnished in 2014 with ergonomic desks that can be raised or lowered electronically with the push of a button. The most recent upgrade was last year to the state's attorney's headquarters.

The county has a five-year and 10-year plan for all of its facilities, including the courthouse. Aside from some cosmetic improvements, it's likely any major updates would be tabled for now, said County Commission Chair Tom Falck.

The commissioner was an assistant state's attorney in the building for 36 years before retiring in 2013. He called the courthouse a unique building, pointing to the intricacies of the marble and dome.

"We could never build anything like that today," he said.

The courthouse basement houses slabs of marble, wooden doors and furniture in case a remodel calls for a structural replacement. It's part of efforts to preserve the building, Absey said.

The basement is home to days long past. It used to house the veteran's offices and a coffee shop. A piano sits among old chairs and bookcases. Though slightly out of tune, it still brings back memories for Absey.

"If this piano could talk," she said as she played a few notes.

The Grand Forks Courthouse building shows the county is dedicated to preserving history, as well as having "beautiful architecture" displayed in public buildings, Smith said. He felt it was well-cared for and added to when necessary.

"It just shows that they continue to have high respect not only for the building but for the law that the building represents," he said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248