There are few buildings in McHenry County designated as national historic landmarks and recognized as symbols of our county.
The Old Courthouse on the Woodstock Square is one such building.
From 1836-1839, McHenry County encompassed the geographic area of both Lake and McHenry counties, and the centrally located city of McHenry served as the county seat. In 1839, the Illinois Legislature voted to divide the larger county into the two counties we know today, and the city of McHenry was no longer centrally located in the redefined McHenry County.
In an interesting chain of events, Woodstock became the county seat before it even existed. On Sept. 4, 1843, a special election of county voters determined to move county government from McHenry to the center of the now smaller county on land owned by Alvin Judd. That land was subsequently purchased by George Dean and platted June 4, 1844, as Centerville.
Judd was the first to construct a building in the newly platted settlement. In late summer 1844, a plain, two-story frame building 33-feet-by-40-feet costing $275 was completed in the middle of the town square. The building housed the living quarters and office of the sheriff and a jail, as well as a courtroom on the upper level. Considered an overly common name, Centerville was changed a year later to Woodstock.
As a county seat, Woodstock grew faster than the average pioneer settlement and, in 1854, the county received permission from the state Legislature to levy a tax on real and personal property to build a new brick courthouse and jail on the west side of the square. The building was completed and opened in 1857 at a cost of $47,000. On July 4, 1858, the original town square courthouse burned.
In early 1971, the county board awarded construction bids for a new courthouse to be built on North Seminary Avenue in Woodstock, and, in 1972, the county courthouse and jail moved from the Woodstock Square to the new McHenry County Building on Route 47. With that move, the courthouse on the square took on the moniker of the Old Courthouse and, in 1978, the Old Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Van Osdel pre-civil war Italianate Midwestern courthouse.
Throughout its 156-year history, the Old Courthouse has stood sentinel to the changing times and events of our collective history. It represents the determination of those new settlers whose dreams were realized with the establishment of a community housing a centrally located county government. It was the catalyst for the new community of Woodstock and carried the city on its shoulders as McHenry County grew and evolved.
The Old Courthouse has been there while buildings, businesses, institutions, organizations, the state and nation grew and changed. It stood solidly as people, in the course of everyday lives, built, worked, shopped, celebrated, mourned and played around it over these many years.
The motto of the city of Woodstock is “True to Its Past, Confident of Its Future.” The Old Courthouse truly is symbolic of that motto. Its solid presence forces us to remember our past and challenges us to consider our future. It pointedly reminds us that much can be accomplished, changes can be made, when people work together to make good things happen. For these reasons, it is important for today’s generation, and those of the future, to maintain the Old Courthouse, to use it, to ensure it continues to stand solidly on the square of McHenry County.
The city of Woodstock, current owners of this important landmark, plans to transfer the building back into private ownership for preservation and continued restoration. The city council hopes to identify an individual or group of individuals who share the same passion for historical preservation and a willingness to invest in the building’s long-term security.
Improvements to the building are being made by the city through the use of tax increment financing to make it ready for potential investors.
The Woodstock Square continues to be a place where old and new exist together. The Old Courthouse offers investors a variety of opportunities in a building of historic significance. Previously, the building housed a men’s clothing store, kitchen products store, museum, restaurant and place for special events. Today, it houses an art gallery and artists’ studios, as well as a restaurant in the Old Sheriff’s House.
A building with mixed uses, contributing to the town square character, would support both historic preservation and economic viability.
• Brian Sager is mayor of Woodstock. For more information about preserving and investing in the future of the Old Courthouse, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Woodstock City Hall at 815-338-4301.