Sioux City, Iowa, is home to one of the Midwest’s most splendid, but perhaps little known architectural masterpieces undertaken in the Prairie School architectural style of the late 19thand early 20thcentury. The Woodbury County Courthouse, a National Historic Landmark (NHL) designated in 1996, was designed in 1915 and constructed between 1916 and 1918.
Woodbury County will soon celebrate the centennial of the NHL after years of sensitively designed improvements, and careful preservation and restoration efforts which began with a 2000 Save America’s Treasures (SAT) federal grant. Other important improvement projects intended to bring the building into safety, accessibility and other code enforcements, as well as general preservation efforts, are noted below.
The building occupies a full city block in downtown Sioux City. Local architect William LaBarthe Steele collaborated with Minneapolis architects George Grant Elmslie (principal designer) and William Gray Purcell. Interestingly, all three worked with Louis Sullivan in Chicago. It was Elmslie whom Sullivan designated chief assistant after Sullivan dismissed Frank Lloyd Wright for “moonlighting” on company time.
The term “Prairie School” was coined by architectural historian H. Allen Brooks who wrote extensively about the style and architects who implemented it, although the architects themselves did not use the term. The style paralleled the Arts and Crafts movement of the same era in American architecture. Perhaps the most famous architect in this group was Wright, who coined the term “organic architecture,” often synonymous with the Prairie School, to describe architecture as integrated within its setting and “rising” from the site in mostly horizontal lines reminiscent of the Midwest prairie. Wright’s early designs, mostly in the Midwest, were his contribution to a truly American style which was in direct contrast to architectural classicism (primarily Greek- and Roman-influenced designs) predominant of the era. Other noteworthy architects of the Prairie School, aside from Elmslie and Purcell, were Alden B. Dow, George W. Maher, Dwight H. Perkins, William Drummond, Marion Mahony, Walter Burley Griffin, and E. Fay Jones. The latter three were apprentices of Wright.
After graduating with a degree in architecture from the University of Illinois, Steele proceeded to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working with three architectural firms there. He moved to Sioux City in 1904 where he did most of his work, and in 1929 joined the Omaha firm of Thomas Roger Kimball. Over his career, Steelesaw the construction of over 250 of his designs for commercial buildings, churches, synagogues, homes, schools, and government buildings in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Steele designed the Walthill Hospital (Walthill, Nebraska, 1912) on the Omaha Indian Reservation, which was later renamed, after its founder, the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital. The Picotte Memorial Hospital was designated an NHL in 1993.
The Historic Structure
Woodbury County Courthouse is characterized by a nearly square four-story structure and an eight-story tower rising from the center core. Buff brick, granite and terra cotta are the primary exterior building materials. Richly ornamented terra cotta also graces the interior public spaces. A 1921 review inThe Western Architectdescribes the exterior:
The facade is alive with contrasting Roman brick bands [piers] and organic terra cotta detail. The front portal is a massive example carved in granite to fit into the archway-integral to the building. The central figure represents the Law and on either side there are six figures, in a smaller scale, which represent the human tide of all ages which will pass through the portal. On the large cornice above is written "Justice and Peace have met together. Truth has sprung out of the Earth."
On the north side a smaller portal is also adorned with two large scale relief figures on the east a male and on the west a female holding a child symbolizing the family social unit. Alphonso Iannelli of Park Ridge, Illinois, was the sculptor for almost all of the building's sculptural work. Above the door on the north side is an intricate bronze grille designed by George Elmslie. The windows and the ornamental detail, recalling Louis Sullivan's influence on Steele and Purcell and Elmslie, are embellished with stylized plant forms. At about 60 feet above the ground, the main block is terminated by a sheer granite coping and above and set back from the main block, the tower rises eight stories. On the western side of the tower, Iannelli's great eagle looks westward, symbolizing the Spirit of Progress. On the east side of the tower is a great bison modeled by K. Schneider.
The review also discusses the focus of interior public spaces, the rotunda:
The floors are a rich buff quartzite tile, the walls and piers Roman brick with great plastered spaces holding vivid mural paintings [by John W. Norton of Chicago are] framed and enriched with delicately modeled cream terra cotta, which, in its turn, is made sparkling with colored inlays of glass mosaic. Terra cotta terminals of the supporting piers engage a spreading canopy of beautifully ornamented plaster, and carrying as a great crown a wonderful glass dome. The dome is lighted by clerestory windows above the main roof, and through it at all times of day comes a flood of richly tinted light.
There are four principal court rooms on the second floor, each located in one of the building's corners, complete with the subsidiary rooms for the judge, bailiff, attorneys, and witnesses. Each courtroom has a large beautiful skylight for letting in the maximum amount of daylight. The central tower contains offices for subsidiary services: county attorney, county engineer, superintendent of schools, court reporter, law library, etc.
In June 2000 the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors received a $300,000 Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grant awarded through the National Park Service’s (NPS) Historic Preservation Fund for structural, plaster restoration, restoration of leaded glass windows, and restoration of historic stenciling.
The grant was matched dollar-for-dollar by Woodbury County resulting in a $600,000 project. As a condition of the grant, Woodbury County will maintain a 50-year preservation easement meant to assure the continued maintenance, repair and administration of the grant-assisted property in a manner that follows the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The easement is managed by the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office (the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Historical Division), with professional oversight by the NPS Midwest Regional Office’s division of History and National Register Programs (HNRP).
Since successful completion of the various projects associated with the SAT grant, HNRP has monitored, reviewed, provided professional guidance, and approved a number of successful projects at Woodbury County Courthouse. These include:
2011 - Rehabilitation of basement, courtroom and tower windows, and
2014 - Accessibility improvements and installation of wireless telecom system.
2015 - Elevator improvements and rehabilitation of interior lighting with LED replacements; and replication of missing or damaged historic fixtures.
2016 – Rehabilitation of radiator grilles
2016-2017 – Phase 2 restoration and rehabilitation of courtroom windows.
The staff of Woodbury County are to be commended for continued professional involvement with HNRP throughout the years since the SAT grant was awarded. It is their dedication and expertise that ensures Woodbury County Courthouse NHL is professionally preserved, and continues to inspire future generations of the public. The County will officially celebrate the building’s centennial in May 2018. Congratulations to all involved!
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 12, 2017, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Mark Chavez.