Requiem For A Courthouse

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The first great architect of the American Renaissance was Richard Morris Hunt, who in 1881 inaugurated the style when he built a French chateau for William K. Vanderbilt on New York’s Fifth Avenue. In the years that followed, he used the Renaissance idiom for such outstanding buildings as Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island; George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore at Asheville, North Carolina; the original portion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and even for the base of the Statue of Liberty. Close on the heels of Hunt came the great architectural triumvirate of Charles Folien McKim, William Rutherford Mead, and Stanford White. When the railroad magnate Henry Villard came to them for a New York town house, they gave him an Italian Renaissance palace; when the Pennsylvania Railroad commissioned them to do a station, they produced a version of the Baths of Caracalla; and when Columbia University asked for a library, they put up a larger-than-life-sized Pantheon.

In addition to their commitment to the architectural forms of the Renaissance, these men were dedicated to the Renaissance concept of a group of artists working together to create something beautiful. McKim, Mead, and White’s Italianate Boston Public Library, for example, contains murals by John Singer Sargent, Edwin A. Abbey, and the Frenchman Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, as well as sculpture by Daniel Chester French and the brothers Augustus and Louis Saint-Gaudens.

The high-water mark of the American Renaissance came with the Columbian quadricentennial celebrations at Chicago in 1893. Over the protests of those who wanted the exclusively American architecture of Louis Sullivan to set the tone for the fair, Chicago was captured by the European-inspired Renaissance architects who transformed the swampy lake front into a White City of colonnades, domes, triumphal arches, caryatids, colossal statues, and formal lagoons. As one critic said, “It was all McKim, White and Gold.” And in keeping with the architects’ principles, hundreds of American artists were given employment decorating the buildings of the Fair.

When the fair closed, the architects scattered across the country to construct more Renaissance-style Newport cottages, post offices, libraries, city halls, and courthouses. And as the buildings were finished, the artists moved in to embellish them. Perhaps the height of this creative frenzy was reached at the Library of Congress—built in 1897—where some fifty painters and sculptors beautified almost every square inch of the interior. But there is no better example of the architecture and art of the period than the Hudson County Courthouse.

Construction began in 1906, and the building was opened on September 20, 1910, after some three million dollars had been spent. The architect, Hugh Roberts, was a native of Jersey City who had built houses for the county’s wealthy citizens, as well as some commercial buildings. In an article published at the time of the dedication, Roberts expressed perfectly the idea embodied in the building: “The granite exterior is rich and imposing.” This is exactly what it was supposed to be—a rich and imposing monument to the Protestants of German and English descent who then controlled Hudson County. Their conservative credo is carved over the main portal for all to see: “ PRECEDENT MAKES LAW; IF You STAND WELL, STAND STILL .”

Inside, the courthouse was embellished by some of the most sought-after American muralists of the turn of the century: Francis D. Millet, Charles Y. Turner, Edwin Blashfield, Kenyon Cox. In the most important room in the building—that of the county’s freeholders, its governing body—the noted illustrator Howard PyIe filled the upper halves of the walls with scenes of the Dutch and English in early New Jersey and New York. These, together with the rich dark panelling, an elaborate English Renaissance ceiling, and a bold wrought-iron chandelier, make the Freeholders’ Room one of the handsomest legislative chambers in the United States. Even in the four courtrooms on the top floor—which are not decorated with murals—Millet achieved a sumptuous effect by the use of marble wainscoting and pilasters, stained-glass ceilings, and mahogany and oak woodwork.

The courthouse was to be one of the last monuments of the Germans and English of Hudson County. Less than a month after its opening, the reformer Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey and swept Democrats into office throughout the state. Among those who ultimately benefited from Wilson’s triumph was the young city hall custodian, Frank Hague. Within seven years Hague was boss of Hudson County and mayor of Jersey City. He kept both jobs for over thirty years. His rise to power symbolized the final triumph of the Democratic Irish-Catholics who constituted the bulk of unskilled laborers in Hudson County. The Irish hegemony continues to rule, aligned with the Poles and other groups in a coalition against the Italians.