In the words of preservationist Richard Moe, "There may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here and there, but those days are gone. Preservation is in the business of saving communities and the values they embody."
Stately, the Rock Island County Courthouse stands as a monument to the progressive spirit of the people, who keeping pace with the advancement of the times, put it there.
Rock Island County was established in 1833. At its humble beginnings, a simple two-story square brick courthouse was sufficient. As the county’s population grew, however, a larger courthouse was needed.
Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss, who pioneered the use of caisson footings and glass-and-metal curtain walls, proposed the design for a four-story, 60-room building in the style now known as Beaux Arts.
With the design approved by the county, the construction of the Rock Island County Courthouse was handed over to Rock Island’s very own Charles Larkin in 1896.
Contractor and stonecutter Charles Larkin was a civic leader who served on the Rock Island Library Board through the establishment of the city library. He also co-founded the Rock Island Manufacturing Company that produced construction tools. His business endeavors were successful and he was a leader in the community.
As a result of Larkin’s tireless work and meticulous craftsmanship, the Rock Island County Courthouse was dedicated on March 13, 1897. Grand and majestic, both the exterior and interior of the courthouse were designed and constructed with aesthetics and longevity in mind.
The building was described as 170 feet long with a Bedford limestone exterior. There was a variety of forms—round topped entrances and windows, circular windows in the triangular pediments, balconies and bulbous standing-seam metal roofs on domes.
On the inside, offices and courtrooms were constructed around a central rotunda that extended all four stories to the building’s top where it was crowned by a windowed dome. The floors of the rotunda were small marble tiles on two lower floors and terrazzo on upper ones. Railings around the open area of the rotunda as well as on stairways were ornate cast iron.
Throughout the years, the building has undergone numerous renovations in order to suit the county’s evolving needs. Despite this, the courthouse maintains much of its original character. A great amount of the tile work in the four-story rotunda and on the stairway and building entrances are intact. Intricate railings and original curving wood benches are found in the rotunda and are in good condition.
The courthouse has housed county government for over a century. And now, the courthouse’s capacity to serve its community is as good as ever.
Located in Rock Island’s historic and active downtown, the 1896 courthouse is within walking distance of restaurants, shops, and numerous other businesses. Further development of the building presents a unique and exciting opportunity to preserve a site of local heritage while creating an economic catalyst for downtown Rock Island. Potential uses of the building include professional offices, retail spaces, museums, nonprofit centers, county use, and other limitless possibilities.
Currently, the Rock Island County Courthouse is a public building and therefore a cost to the county. By selling the building to a private developer, the county can turn the courthouse from a tax liability to a tax generator.
The 1896 courthouse has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the Illinois Office of Historic Preservation. This listing would make the project eligible for federal and state historic tax credits, thus further incentivizing its development.
The destruction of the historic Rock Island County Courthouse would portray disrespect to the ancestry and heritage of the county. Relics such as the 1896 courthouse are what gives Rock Island County its individuality and unique character. To destroy them would be to disrespect the ancestors who worked with unyielding dedication to make the county what it is today.