Requiem For A Courthouse

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Boss Hague, who had an affection for the old courthouse and had its exterior cleaned after the Second World War, died in 1956. In place of his highly visible and autocratic rule there are now the anonymous bureaucrats who in Hudson County, as in other places throughout the United States, have superseded the colorful bosses of the Ed Kelly, Jim Curley, Frank Hague era. The new men may be more honest than the old bosses were, but the type of civic buildings they have erected, from Augusta to Chicago to Fresno, shows that they have the imagination of accountants. Adjacent to the old courthouse, the officials of Hudson County have put up a new county building. It was originally intended merely to provide additional office space, but recently it has been enlarged to house the courts as well.

The new building could be a prison, a bank, an insane asylum. There is nothing about it that proclaims the grandeur of free government or the dignity of justice. Instead of murals it has Muzak; instead of a soaring central court, it has squalidly low corridors; instead of the beauty of carved marble, it has dusty plastic plants. And now—almost empty—the old courthouse is threatened with demolition.

Its loss would be particularly sad for Hudson County and for Jersey City. In The Image of the City , a book published by the Joint Center for Urban Studies, a co-operative venture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, Jersey City was one of the places discussed. The Center found that, in sharp contrast to Boston, where the citizen related his life and experience to the State House, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the Common, the South End—and had a richer existence because of it- the citizen of Jersey City had only a vague idea of the boundaries of his city, little knowledge of any landmarks, and almost no pride in his town. “This is really one of the most pitiful things about Jersey City,” a woman told an interviewer. “There isn’t anything that if someone came here from a far place, that I could say, 1Oh, I want you to see this, this is so beautiful.’” The courthouse, even now, could be that beautiful thing.

In 1961, Theodore Conrad, a native of the county and one of America’s best-known builders of architectural scale models, ran unsuccessfully for councilman in Jersey City. Conrad’s principal campaign issue was a plan he had drawn up to save the old courthouse. Under this plan, the county would transfer ownership of the courthouse to Jersey City for use as a city hall. (The present city hall is literally falling down.) In front of the courthouse Conrad proposed a mall, part of the cost of which would be met by the Greenacres Fund, a state program that finances the creation of open spaces in cities and counties. Placed around the mall would be other civic buildings and a museum. This plan would have saved the old courthouse building and would have given to Jersey City and to Hudson County the civic core they so badly need. Although Conrad was later appointed a commissioner on the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, his council defeat deprived friends of the old courthouse of a spokesman among elective city officials. And no aspect of Conrad’s plan has been implemented.

When, during the First World War, the Germans destroyed the Cloth Hall at Ypres, an angry humanity cried out against the barbarism of the Hun. Now the great monuments of America’s past—Charles McKim’s Pennsylvania Station, in New York City, Louis Sullivan’s Schiller Building in Chicago, Alexander Jackson Davis’ Harral-Wheeler House in Bridgeport, Connecticut—come down, and the silence is rarely disturbed by anything other than the monotonous thud of the wrecker’s ball. The only excuse that we can give—that of economy—is a pitiful one for the richest nation in the history of the world. “What is happening now is hardly more than what happened in Rome in the Dark ages,” the architectural historian Edgar Kaufmann has written. “Men tear down great works, and put up the best they can.”