Court House History


The January 1, 1913 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer proclaimed 1912 as probably the “greatest (year) in the history of Cleveland”; and avowed that the sixth city had improved in “Beauty, Finances, People and Morals.” The commentary also alluded to a Group Plan and the Cuyahoga County Court House’s position, in company with the Federal Court House, at its nucleus. One year earlier the Plain Dealer (January 3, 1912) had proclaimed that “Yesterday was opening day at the new county court house and those who took their places at their desks for the first time appeared as happy and almost as confused with their new surroundings as are children at the beginning of school after the long summer vacation.” County Clerk Charles Horner showed his exuberance by asking the rhetorical question :”Did you ever see a job of moving as we have done?” Horner extolled the activity of clerks divided into two twelve hour shifts, who starting on Saturday at Noon had everything in its place at 7 o’clock on Monday evening. This handsome Beaux Arts structure, an architectural gem highlighted by its statuary, paintings and murals, was not the first, but the fifth, building to house the activities of county government. Justice dawned in Cuyahoga County one hundred years earlier, circa 1812-13, with the completion of the first court house built by Levi Johnston. It stood on the northwest corner of Public Square, and the structure, covered by clapboard and painted red with white window frames, was approximately 25 by 50 feet and two stories high. A two cell jail occupied half of the lower floor. By 1826 county residents found the existing court house and jail inadequate for their needs and 1828 saw the erection of a second Court House located on the southwest section of the Public Square. A few years later a stone- jail, called the Blue Jug because of its grave appearance, was erected to the rear of the court house and across the street. 

As Cleveland grew in size, so too did the administrative and legal responsibilities of Cuyahoga County and the need for a new Court House. Located in the northwest area of the Square, the Italianate structure, known as the third County Court House of 1858, had three stories, and the building housed the Auditor, Probate Court, Recorder and Treasurer on the first floor, while the Clerk of the Court, Sheriff, and court rooms were on the floor above. The third floor housed jury rooms and the Board of School Examiners, while the entirety of the space in the rear was committed to criminal court uses. The Court House was connected to the jail behind it by what was known as the “bridge of sighs.” 

The fourth Court house of 1875, four stories tall, was an addition to the third Court House, and stood on land fronting Seneca St. (now W. 3d St.) and reaching back to the line of the 1858 Court House. It was designated to accommodate criminal cases, the work of the Probate Court, and the functions of the Board of Equalization, the County Surveyor and other county officers. This Court House remained until its demolition in 1931. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, the population in the United States was shifting from the farm to increasingly overcrowded urban areas. As the wealthier classes moved out of the cities, the deteriorating urban core became home to the less fortunate and often poverty stricken population, and these areas became hot beds for crime and disease. A growing number of urban reformers, largely middle to upper class, sought solutions to these growing problems, perhaps more out of fear of the masses than from charitable instincts. Many of these reformers became allied with the City Beautiful Movement, seeking social change through the concept of beauty. It was believed that beautification would foster moral and civic “virtue” with a power to impact human thought and behavior; eradicating social ills and creating cities that would invite more prosperous citizens to conduct business. Chicago’s Daniel H. Burnham joined John Carrere and Arnold Brunner as the authors of the Group Plan, hoping to realize the objectives of the City Beautiful Movement in Cleveland. These men envisioned a large public space (the Mall) to be surrounded by civic and governmental structures designed in a neoclassical mode. The first building to be completed was the Federal Court House (The Metzenbaum Courthouse) in 1910 to be followed by the Fifth County Court House on Lakeside Avenue in 1912. Other structures would include Cleveland City Hall (1916), Public Auditorium (1922), the Cleveland Public Library main building (1925), and the Board of Education Building (1931). While not brought totally to fruition this project remains the most complete representation in the United States of the City Beautiful plan. 


According to one commentator, January 1, 1912 was a “gala day for Cleveland!” as “overawed” citizens were allowed to enter the building to climb the marble steps, lifting their heads in the rotunda to see the stained glass above. The new Court House not only provided space for the work of the County Clerk, Probate Court, Court of Appeals, and Sheriff, but served as the center of operations for Cuyahoga County government with offices for the Commissioners, Treasurer, Auditor, Recorder and Surveyor, among others. 

The Fifth Court House had its genesis when the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judges appointed a Building Commission of seven members, including the County Commissioners. The Commission selected Lehman and Schmitt as the building architects, naming Charles F. Schweinfurth as the architect for much of the interior space, including fixtures, bronze pedestals and partitions, draperies, paintings and all office furniture. Work began in 1906, and the cost for the structure was five million dollars, with expenses for the land totaling less than one million dollars. The model for the Court House was the mid-eighteenth century Hotel de Cite of Nancy, France. 

The Court House was described by one observer as interesting not only as an “example of technical efficiency in architectural design, but as an expression of high civic ideas and is perhaps the best building of its kind in the United States”. Perhaps it was the magnificent works of art and sculpture that contributed to the building’s renown as a cultural treasure. A series of murals and paintings were specially commissioned to illustrate aspects of the law and its progress. “King John Signing the Magna Charta at Runymede,” by Sir Frank Brangwyn, is an oil on canvass found at the entrance to the Court of Appeals. There are two paintings in the Appeals Court Room: “The Trial of Captain John Smith” and the “Conclave Between Pontiac and Rogers’ Rangers at the Cuyahoga River, November 1760,” both by Charles Yardley Turner. The Probate Court features a mural, entitled “Appeal” by Frederick Wilson, and in the Law Library on the Fourth Floor is Max Bohm’s mural “A New England Town Meeting.” An ornamental glass window, designed by Charles F. Schweinfurth from Cleveland and Frederick Wilson of Briar Cliff Manor, N.Y., adorns the Main Stair Hall. A document contemporaneous with the opening of the Court House described the marble stairway as “one of the most magnificent in the world”, having a double approach to the second floor. Here “Justice,” located above the first landing, is depicted without a blindfold to suggest that Justice should not only see the letter but the spirit of the law as well. 

The statues on the exterior of the Court House tell the story of the law’s development and represents the law in all of its “human manifestations.” On the south cornice, from left to right, are images of Stephen Langton (Magna Charta), Simon De Montfort (House of Commons), Edward I (Judicial Reforms), John Hampden (Petition of Rights), John Somers (Declaration of Rights), and Lord Mansfied (Commercial Law). Also on the south side of the Court House are two bronzes on pedestals: Thomas Jefferson (Declaration of Intention) and Alexander Hamilton (The Federal Constitution), both by Karl Bitters. Decorating the north cornice are Moses, signifying the moral law, Justinian, the civil law, Alfred the Great, the common law, and Gregory the IX, the ecclesiastical law. The bronzes on pedestals, facing north, are John Marshall (Interpreter of the Federal Court) and Rufus P. Ranney (the interpreter of the State Court) by Herbert Adams. 

Today the Fifth Court House houses only judicial functions (Court of Appeals, Probate Court, Domestic Relations) as other activities of County government are currently centered in the Administration Building at the corner of Lakeside and Ontario that opened in 1957. And in 1931, with the completion of the Criminal Courts Building on East 21st St., the criminal courts, Prosecuting Attorney-Criminal Division, Sheriff’s Office, and Jail were moved to this location. Cleveland’s Warner and Mitchell were the architects for this Art Deco structure that stood until razed in 1997. But the Criminal Courts structure fell into disuse about twenty years earlier with the completion of the Cuyahoga County and City of Cleveland Justice Center in 1977. But as Cuyahoga County has developed, changed, and expanded over the past two hundred years, including the establishment of a new form of governance, the Court House has stood the test of time, serving as a reminder of the American system of justice as it has evolved throughout history. As one of the building’s inscriptions proclaims: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of Civil Society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” 

A Courthouse with a History - Significant Cases from the Cuyahoga County Courthouse 

Evolution of Law: Portrayed in Art in the Cuyahoga County Court House 

List of Cleveland Bar Association Journal Articles from 1943 

The Cleveland Bar Association Journal 

Bibliography of 1912 Cases Decided at the Cuyahoga County Court House 

Judges of the Court of Common Pleas Prior to 1912 

Court House Centennial Celebration

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