Requiem For A Courthouse

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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?