The courthouse was extravagant: limestone imported from Indiana, floors tiled by English craftsmen, a grand dome over a central rotunda, an elaborate facade in the Beaux Arts style.
It was a marvel of American design, built by one of the nation’s most celebrated architects.
And then it fell into shambles. The portico was crumbling. Termites were eating away the foundation. Falling slabs of sandstone came crashing onto pedestrians. The building, which had been sinking for years, slid several feet into the ground.
The courthouse was a health hazard, and fixes were expensive.
So it was demolished. Gone forever.
But the public was not upset. Quite the opposite: Voters had asked for its demolition by an overwhelming margin.
This is not the story of the old Rock Island County Courthouse, the shuttered structure now in the terminal stages of a fight between historic preservationists and county officials who want to see it razed.
This is the story of a courthouse across the river and back in time: Sixty-three years ago in Scott County, a local jewel of architecture and history was destroyed with the backing — and indifference — of the public.
“In this day and age, people should know better,” said Marion Meginnis, an alderwoman on the Davenport City Council. “We can’t build those buildings anymore. We cannot afford to.”
A 'beautiful edifice'
Scott County’s first courthouse, built in 1842, was a modest structure in a small county. By 1880, after westward migration had brought thousands of settlers across the Mississippi River, the county population had swollen to 41,000. The transplants wanted new civic structures commensurate with the county’s burgeoning size and stature.
County supervisors initially proposed an $80,000 replacement courthouse. But “a much finer building was desired than that sum called for," according to a story published in the Davenport Democrat-Gazette.
So the county board upped the ante, proposing in 1885 to build a new courthouse with a price of $150,000 — equal to about $4 million in today's dollars. The measure passed overwhelmingly.
After a short search for a bigwig builder, the supervisors found their man in John C. Cochrane, a Chicago architect with local ties and a national reputation. Cochrane, who was 40 in 1885, started his career in Davenport in 1856.
“One of the best known architects in the country," as his obituary noted, he had designed dozens of structures in the Midwest, including the Iowa and Illinois state capitols.
For the new Scott County Courthouse, Cochrane had big plans: a regal multistory structure in the Beaux Arts style that was then in vogue.
Cochrane would not live to see his vision completed. He died suddenly in late 1887, after falling ill in Davenport. His successors completed construction of the Scott County Courthouse in early 1889.
From the beginning, the courthouse won over the public. “It is a grand building in every sense of the word — majestic, stately, imposing, beautiful,” the Sunday Democrat-Gazette reported. “None look upon it but to praise it.”
Spectators admired its style, commanded by an ostentatious Italian Renaissance edifice. The 4th Street side featured a grand portico with Corinthian columns, over which hung a large keystone arch. Small panels on the edifice depicted a tableau vivant of "Pioneer Life" from the 1830s, including steamboats and trains, and three figures representing Justice, Art and Science.
The building was topped by a lofty dome atop which perched a statue eagle, 212 feet above ground. In the dome was an observatory with "a magnificent view" of the Mississippi River Valley. "It is indescribably grand and beautiful,” as a contemporary noted. “There is no doubt that every person who views the structure will be proud of it."
In all, as reported by the Davenport Democrat-Gazette, it was “the finest courthouse in Iowa.”
A long, slow decline
Over the next sixty years, the “finest courthouse” in the state sank into a long decline.
During construction, the structure — built on thin, weak soil — sank four inches into the ground. Within 10 years of its completion, serious questions had begun to be raised about the durability of its construction, according to David Cordes, a historic properties consultant in the Quad-Cities.
By the 1930s, the problem had become untenable. Whole sections of the ground floor had sunk several feet into the earth.
Meanwhile, the building was being eroded by termites. To alleviate weight, the central dome was removed. Car-sized slabs of stone began falling from the facade, nearly killing several passers-by and workers.
By the 1940s, a consensus had formed: The courthouse’s “days are numbered,” as The Daily Times of Davenport opined.
What was to be done?
County administrators considered saving the building. In 1945, a survey commissioned by the board of supervisors estimated that renovations costing $40,000 would put the courthouse in only a “fair” condition.
But the public had no interest in a costly refurbishment. As one county supervisor said, “We still have an old building built in 1886, so out of joint and full of termites the expenditure of the money seems almost a sin.”
Preservation yielded to calls for obliteration.
The county board resolved unanimously to scrap the old courthouse and start over. In a vote to take place in September 1945, citizens whould decide whether $1.5 million in bonds should be issued to raze the old courthouse and construct a new one. The referendum was backed by the Davenport Chamber of Commerce and City Plan commission.
The argument for building a new courthouse centered on two issues: cost and “civic progress.”
“The proposed bond issue will be an investment in community pride,” read one newspaper ad in favor of demolition. “The cost of remodeling it into a safe, adequate structure would be nearly as great as that of a new building, and Scott County would have nothing to show for it at the end of 10 years but a thoroughly outmoded and wornout courthouse.”
Mostly, though, the public response to the referendum was defined by indifference.
“There has been no organized or intensive campaign for or against the proposition, and apparently there has been little interest in the election,” wrote editors of The Daily Times.
On the day of the election, only a fraction of county residents bothered to vote. It was what one newspaper called “probably the lightest vote ever cast in a special election in Scott County.” The referendum generated such little interest that a janitor at a major polling site forgot to show up to unlock the building for the clerks and judges.
By the end of the day, the results were clear: The referendum had passed by a margin of two-to-one. Scott County would get a new courthouse.
Without intervention, Cochrane’s masterpiece would be destroyed.
That intervention never came. By the mid-1950s, a new courthouse had gone up at 400 W. 4th St. in Davenport. And after years of indecision — local officials briefly flirted with the creation of a joint city-council building — the county resolved to scrap the old courthouse altogether.
It was demolished in the spring of 1956.
No one batted an eye.
Historic preservation: a new calling
Sixty years later, history seemingly is being repeated. In the Quad-Cities, another historic courthouse is set to be demolished: the Rock Island County Courthouse, which dates to 1896.
But the Rock Island courthouse had a lifeline the Davenport courthouse never did: a small army of historic preservationists fighting tenaciously — some believe futilely — to save the structure from death.
“When the Davenport courthouse was taken down, the movement was just beginning,” said Meginnis, who recently earned a master’s degree in historic preservation.
Meginnis personifies the evolution of historic preservation in the Quad-Cities. Sixty years ago, preservationism was hardly perceptible. Now, preservationists like her hold key positions of power.
According to Meginnis, the American historic preservation movement took off in the 1960s and '70s, thanks to two anniversaries — the Civil War’s centennial, in 1965, and the nation’s 200th birthday, in 1976 — which reminded citizens of their history.
At the same time, Meginnis said, national “urban renewal” policies were transforming cities like Davenport, often by razing old buildings. The destruction of historic structures — and, in some cases, whole neighborhoods — generated backlash that encouraged efforts to preserve endangered buildings.
The movement’s biggest achievement came in 1966 with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. The landmark legislation, which among other things established the National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks programs, laid the foundation for states and cities to begin earnest efforts at preservation.
In the half-century since the act’s passage, the landscape for preservation has changed dramatically.
When the Scott County Courthouse was razed in 1956, “there were no tax credits; there was little understanding of preservation; there were no incentives for it,” Meginnis said. “They didn’t have so many options then. That’s not the case now.”
Cordes, the historic properties consultant, said he believes the two courthouses themselves — one built with structural defects, the other without, he said — render impossible any comparison between Scott County in the 1950s and Rock Island County today.
“It’s a considerably different situation,” Cordes said. “(Scott County) didn’t have the means at the time to do the kind of soil studies that can be done today. ... Those are serious structural problems. The Rock Island courthouse does not have structural problems.”
The fate of the two courthouses, Cordes added, reflect different circumstances of leadership.
“It’s always sad when things are lost that are beautiful and impossible to replace,” he said about the Scott County Courthouse. “But that didn’t happen because leaders made bad decisions. With the Rock Island County Courthouse, leaders did make bad decisions."
As the clock runs down on the Rock Island County Courthouse, preservationists see their cause slipping away — but not without some hope, Cordes said.
“The building is still standing there still,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to make better decisions.”