Monday, June 24, 2013

The Old Court House

The following article on the 1st Gloucester County Court House in Woodbury appeared in the June 2013 Bulletin (Vol. 33 No. 8) of the Gloucester County Historical Society which is printed for their members. I'm going to also publish the article here but would like to urge you to check out all that the Historical Society offers and consider becoming a member. Their library and museum are wonderful for anyone remotely interested in the local history of Gloucester County and surrounding communities. Membership fees are very reasonable and are comparably little for all that they continue to do in the name of archiving and preserving our vanishing history.
As early as 1694, during America's Colonial period, the first permanent court house building in Gloucester County stood in Gloucester Town, now Gloucester City. A court house in one location or another managed to exist here for nearly a century. However, numerous fires seemed to plague the court house buildings in Gloucester Town and the final blow occurred on March 7th, 1786 when the court house along with its adjacent jail, stocks, and whipping posts were burnt to the ground; the conflagration having allegedly been started by a disgruntled horse thief. Afterwards some discussion occurred between county officials whether to rebuild the court house in Gloucester, where it had already been rebuilt a few times after the previous fires, or to relocate to a different town all together. It was eventually decided Freeholders petition legislature for a move of the county seat, and after permission granted, a vote in favor of Woodbury ruled. Shortly thereafter, at a meeting held in the Bulls Eye Tavern in Woodbury, county officials reached an agreement to purchase for erection of a court house 60 perch or rods of land from the Bispham family for £50; a plot originally a part of a two hundred acre plantation owned by Thomas Matthews. It was added in the agreement that a road was to be constructed along the edge of the property. This road by 1802 was known as the Lombardy Highway, but was later renamed Delaware Street.

Freeholder meetings were temporarily held in a public house then known as The Hessian Defeated at Red Bank (now Charlie Brown’s) until the new court house was finished in March, 1787. "The cost of the Court House and Gaol, as changed from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents, seems to have been $12,286.10, as shown by memorandum made in Minute Book by John M. Saunders" (F. H. . Stewart (Ed.), 1917). The structure was built 35 by 40 feet in an Adamesque, AKA Federal, Colonial-style from red bricks burned on the nearby John B. Jessup farm. It stood two-stories tall with a grand portico entryway, paired chimneys, and classic keystone lintels over 9/9 and 9/6 paned, double-hung sash windows on the 1st and 2nd floors respectively. An impressively high clock tower steeple topped by a weathervane which at least doubled the building's height, was added in 1850 (at a cost of $741.81) to replace the original steeple which by then had decayed. In 1858 the only major alteration to the building was made when a portion of the rear or west wall was removed to encompass a semicircular recess for the better accommodation of the bench. Later, in 1862 the new steeple was struck by lightning and the arrester point was melted. Later still in 1884 an earthquake rocked the court house "like a cradle." Despite these near tragedies, Woodbury's Colonial-era court house faithfully served the public for many years, but not  completely without opposition. As early as 1850 many in the community began to voice their concern that the building had outgrown its usefulness. In 1881 Justice Parker deemed the building unsafe, but it was not until May, 1885 that it was officially decided to erect a new building. After a bidding process, construction began in October 1885 on a larger Hazlehurst and Huckel-designed Victorian-style Romanesque building. The "New Court House" was built behind the Civil War Soldiers' Monument (erected in 1867) adjacent to the now "Old Court House." Although the new building began construction in 1885 and was completed in 1886, the original court house was permitted to stand alongside until 1887, in order for it to reach its 100 year old mark.

A rare glimpse inside the Colonial
courtroom in Woodbury
In February, 1887 the building was auctioned off with the requirement that it be removed within forty days. The winning bid at $225 was placed by Benajah W. Andrews, a Philadelphia merchant and residence of Woodbury who stated he wanted the lumber and stone for his own personal use. A public auction of furniture and architectural components was held and the items were promptly scattered throughout town. The following contains a description and, where possible, last known location of items from the court house purchased in the auction. Some of these architectural components can still be found in Woodbury today. W. A. Flanigan bought the stone door-sill which he used as a carriage stepping stone at his Euclid Street home. A blue-gray "1787" carved stepping stone was used in front of B. W. Andrews’ residence also on Euclid, but is now located in front of the Gloucester County Historical Society Library. Nearby is an iron foot scraper from the original court house which was presented by Mr. and Mrs. Philip Blank of Media, PA in 1973. It is currently located in front of a side door at the Hunter/Lawrence/Jessup house, Gloucester County Historical Society's museum. B. W. Andrews had the original court house window lintels placed within the sidewalk on Hunter Street adjacent to his Euclid St. residence and they can still be found there to this day! Gus Prehl purchased the portico, but where it wound up is a mystery. This is also the case for the clock mechanism which was removed and stored in a "dry place;" its location never again discovered. The original 1787 cornerstone was placed alongside its 1885 counterpart in the "New Court House." The weathervane was placed on top of the cupola of the Newton Hotel stables but was removed when R. Weaver sold the hotel and most likely with him it traveled. The bricks of the court house were reused in the Edison electric light station which once sat on Smallwood Place, a small thoroughfare behind the current high school. It has also been reported that the iron fencing around the court house, originally added in 1880 to replace the rustic fence of cedar posts and Lombardy poplars, wound up at the Mickle-Summerill house and grounds. If true, these can still be found around the property on the NE corner of Broad and Newton. The original bell which cost £30 at the time of hanging around 1792 was sold for $54 dollars in 1816 and another bell was ordered from Philadelphia bell maker Thomas W. Levering for the price of $359. It was later recommissioned as the fire bell for the Goodwill Fire Co. #2 in North Woodbury and in 2007, after Goodwill was shut down, the 1816 court house bell was refurbished and now sits in the Justice Complex on Hunter Street. According to a Gloucester County Times article the bell was restored by the McShane Bell Company of Baltimore, the same company that originally bid for the bell to be used as scrap 120 years earlier! Gladly they were outbid.
It is a pity this fine example of Colonial era architecture was not preserved for future generations to experience. The "Old Court House" building was not unlike Independence Hall, its contemporary in Philadelphia, in both architectural style and of local importance. Many letters were received and printed attesting the demolition in local papers. Alternate proposals such as the building to be used as a location for the public library were suggested, but none were taken seriously and the building was lost in the name of progress. One particularly poignant letter printed in the Constitution in 1886 reminisced, "How many anniversaries of American Independence have been celebrated within its time-honored walls? How many times has the old bell rang out its merry peals of greeting at the dawning of that "Natal Day?" While cannon and small arms, rockets and other fire works have illumined those windows from which hung beautiful banners, a sheen of glory reflected back upon the scene from roof and spire, kissed by the rising sun. [...] Flowers entwined with the "National Ensign" have graced and beautified its interiors, while soldiers with gay uniforms and nodding plumes have welcomed with martial music and the loud huzza, the arrival of many a patriot of the Revolution and the later wars." In 1935, the Honorable David O. Watkins, U.S. District Attorney, 38th Governor of N.J., and charter member of the Gloucester County Historical Society, regretfully stated that he "could have saved the venerable old building" had he realized the historical value at the time. Fortunately, as mentioned above, the few remaining physical remnants from the original Woodbury court house can still be found scattered throughout the city today and may serve to remind us of Woodbury's rich Colonial history. Why not visit these small pieces of history before they too are lost to the ages.
Colonial vs. Victorian
A shot showing the court houses of two eras
that existed briefly side-by-side in 1886-1887


Original 1787 cornerstone embedded in current court house.
1816 Thomas W. Levering of Philadelphia bell from original court house on display in the Gloucester County Justice Complex
reverse side of original court house bell
Original keystone lintels from the Colonial court house embedded on the corner sidewalk of Hunter and Euclid Streets
1787 stepping stone currently in front of GCHS Library
Original court house boot scraper currently at side door of GCHS Museum (Hunter/Lawrence/Jessup house)
Cushing, T., & Shepard, C. E. (1883). History of the counties of Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland New Jersey : With biographical sketches of their prominent citizens.Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society.
Ernest , J. A., & Zimmerman, M. O. (1963, Sep). The court houses of old Gloucester county. Bulletin of the Gloucester County Historical Society
Ernest , J. A., & Zimmerman, M. O. (1963, Dec). The colonial court house. Bulletin of the Gloucester County Historical Society

Hoelle, E. (1973, Dec). Library dedication. Bulletin of the Gloucester County Historical Society
McCarthy, P. (2007, May 27). County’s old bell makes a move. Gloucester County Times 
(1917). F. H. Stewart (Ed.), Notes on old Gloucester county: New Jersey (Vol. 1). Camden, NJ: Sinnickson Chew & Sons Company
(1924). A. Heston (Ed.), South Jersey: A history 1664-1924 (Vol. 1). New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company.
Simpson, H. B. (Ed.). (1965). Under four flags: Old Gloucester county, 1686-1964. Camden, NJ: Sinnickson Chew & Sons Co.
The old court house. (1886, Nov 10). Constitution

Top Illustration: 1868 edition of Barber and Howe's Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey