WOODSTOCK – As the city looks to the future of the Old McHenry County Courthouse, those dedicated to preserving the 154-year-old structure are examining the building’s past.
Opened in 1858, the building was home to McHenry County government and the court system through the 1970s, when the county moved operations to Route 47 and Ware Road. The building then was sold to private investors.
The county had outgrown the building long before it left the structure with an outdated mechanical system, window air conditioners, partially closed window openings and no handicap access to the second floor. Private owners let much of the building deteriorate, city officials said.
Now that the city of Woodstock has taken ownership, officials are dedicated to bringing the building back to its former elegance. The City Council and the Historic Preservation Commission have set a joint meeting Tuesday to discuss the building’s future, marking the first time that the City Council has collectively and openly discussed the property.
The Old Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. At the time, much of the application was devoted to the building’s famous architect.
The building was designed by John Mills Van Osdel, Chicago’s first prominent architect. His agency designed many well-known buildings including the Ogden Mansion, Rush Medical Center, The Palmer House and the old Cook County Courthouse.
The Northwest Herald was given an exclusive tour of the Old Courthouse, Sheriff’s House and jail for this story.
Few buildings define the Woodstock Square quite like the Old Courthouse. Standing two stories, the boxy brick building gives off an air of stateliness. But on closer inspection, the building tells a story of deterioration in need of immediate attention.
There is mismatched masonry, cracking steps and incongruous additions on this once grand structure.
The inside is much of the same: cobwebs, water damage, peeling paint, evidence of trespassing, an ongoing pigeon infestation, orange carpeting with holes patched with duct tape, even yellow caution tape blocking access to a former courtroom. Moisture issues and leaks plague the maze of a building.
But a Woodstock city planner sees beyond that. Nancy Baker sees possibilities.
“It’s sort of a blank chalkboard at this point,” she said as she guided the tour through the building’s turns, nooks and crannies. “The right person could do just about anything.”
And that’s just what city officials are hoping for.
At the meeting with the Historic Preservation Commission, city officials will discuss the building, a timeline for short-term repairs before marketing the courthouse to the private sector.
Ideally, Mayor Brian Sager would prefer a mix of uses in the building. Restaurant equipment including a full kitchen, bar, tables and chairs remain in the jail area, once home to the Courthouse Grill.
“[We had] a really fine restaurant that people enjoyed, and we would look forward to having another fine restaurant,” Sager said. “It’s an ideal location for something like that.”
He has visions of expanding the arts center, office space, retail establishments or condominiums.
For its part, the city has spent $238,175 from its tax increment financing fund to acquire the property and make minor repairs. The Old Courthouse was donated to the city last year, but was tied up in a lengthy legal battle that ended with the city obtaining the property at a Sheriff’s Auction.
The city has commissioned an architect to compile a condition assessment. The 70-page report indicated that the structure needs about $4.7 million in improvements, of which the city has recommended a five-year spending plan to pay for about $2 million of that.
“It’s not the intent of the city to make all the improvements identified in the report,” Sager said. “That’s not something that we could do or is right to do.”
Beyond the cobwebbed corners, cracking walls, peeling paint and leaking roof, the property “has so much potential” those close to the project keep saying.
“With any old building, especially a building as old as this is, and the way the construction is, there’s always something new coming up,” Baker said.
But as city officials are learning, there will be no simple fix.
“The continual application of Band-Aids will only hasten its demise,” the architects report stated.
But city officials remain dedicated to returning the building to greatness.
Baker sees promise in the grand curved staircase, possibilities in the exposed brick. In the original jail cells, she can imagine what life was like for those once imprisoned there.
“I can’t imagine the Square without it,” Baker said.
Did you know?
Interesting facts about the Old McHenry County Courthouse
• A fire burned the southwest corner of the Square in 1871, the same day as the Great Chicago fire, but cisterns installed during construction saved the courthouse.
• McHenry County’s only legal hanging occurred on July 16, 1886. James Dacey of Chicago was convicted of shooting and killing a Chicago alderman. A week before the hanging, Simon Brink – who later would oversee the construction of the Opera House – assembled the scaffold for the hanging.
• The jail’s best known prisoner was Eugene Debs, who during his six-month stay in Woodstock was called on by prominent national and international visitors. Debs was the outspoken leader of the labor movement and jailed for six months for contempt of court. He later ran several unsuccessful presidential campaigns.
• The McHenry County jail was busy during prohibition. Seventy-three federal prisoners were housed there at various times, including two members of the Dino O’Banion gang – Dapper Dan McCarthy and Heimie Wiess, who were convicted of booze hijacking. They were sent to McHenry County because there was no federal prison. The sheriff at the time put them to work to build the garage behind the jail.
If you go
What: City Council and Historic Preservation Commission joint meeting
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: City Hall, 121 W. Calhoun St.