The St. Joseph County, Michigan Courthouse (1899-)

Centreville, Michigan has a lot of similarities to Cassopolis, which sits about twenty-six miles due west on M-60 and is home to the last Michigan courthouse we talked about a month and a half ago. Both towns -villages, technically- have fewer than two thousand residents and, despite their statuses as county seats, both have long been surpassed in size and prominence by other cities in their counties: Dowagiac grew while Cassopolis didn’t, and Sturgis and Three Rivers overtook Centreville in a similar fashion.

The St. Joseph County, Michigan courthouse, in Centreville.

Both county seats also have Richardson Romanesque courthouses that were constructed in the 1890s, although Cass County’s came first. In fact, officials from St. Joseph County traveled to Cassopolis to take stock of the new courthouse there when it came time to erect their own. ”Here we found many mistakes,” commissioners wrote, “which we trust we will be able to avoid.” Though both buildings were substantially expanded in the 1970s, maybe that’s why St. Joseph County’s courthouse in Circleville remains vital in 2022 while the one in Cassopolis was abandoned outright nineteen years ago!

I’d never been to Cass County or Cassopolis when I decided to visit a few Michigan courthouses on my way back home from Elkhart one wintery day in 2018. I’d never been to Centreville either, but I’d gone through St. Joseph County plenty, since US-131 cuts through its western third on its way towards Cadillac, near where my family owns a getaway property. Trips up north from my dad’s house in Elkhart inevitably took us through White Pigeon, Constantine, and Three Rivers.

It was White Pigeon that was actually designated as the county seat when St. Joseph County got laid out in 1829. After only a year, though, county government moved to Lockport Village2, which no longer exists as far as I can tell. Centreville has been the seat of St. Joseph County since 1831, when the first county offices were conducted from rented room in the community’s only two-story house, a place owned by Thomas Langley. Six years later, the hamlet was incorporated as a village3 and it’s remained that way ever since.

The west front of the courthouse features little ornamentation aside from its stone sills that contrast the building’s red brick massing.

In 1841, Langley provided land for the county to build a proper courthouse and jail, which were completed by John Bryan the following year at a cost of $7,000. The first courthouse was a two-story affair of the Greek Revival mode typical of its time, standing three bays wide and four bays long. Four evenly-spaced columns held a gabled pediment above an open front porch, and the roof terminated in a double-tiered, rectangular cupola that housed a bell behind louvered vents5

Census figures indicate that, from 1840 to 1850, St. Joseph County’s population rose eighty percent, from just over seven thousand residents to nearly 13,000 people. To address its growing constituency, county brass constructed two additional office buildings to pull some of the workload away from the teensy courthouse6.

That wasn’t enough, as the county’s population kept growing as the turn of the century loomed: By 1890, more than 23,000 people lived there! The growth led three issues to become obvious to the locals.

  1. The old courthouse and its supplemental offices were in shambles.
  2. The communities of Sturgis and Three Rivers had each grown to more than 3,000 people, which was nearly four times as many as lived in the actual county seat.
  3. A new courthouse needed built, the quicker the better.

By 1897, a skinflint plan emerged that proposed to “reconstruct” the fifty-five year old courthouse in Centreville. It was ill-received by jealous newspaper publishers in Sturgis and Three Rivers, and it was soundly rejected by voters7. A subsequent effort to build a new structure, at Centreville, passed two years later despite rabble-rousing from those larger communities to the west.

The courthouse features monumental, arched entryways that imply the Richardson Romanesque mode of architecture.

Along with the courthouse in Cass County that was still under construction, St. Joseph County officials also visited two others in Michigan at Goldwater and Hillsdale along with the courthouse in Knox, Indiana. They favored Claire Allen’s Hillsdale design, which was of the Renaissance Revival mode: “This is a new building,” they wrote, “nearly completed, of modern build and very convenient, from which the committee gained much information to assist in getting started right.”

The commissioners made up their mind in 1899, meeting in Sturgis with architects Allen; Sidney Osgood; and Wing & Mahurin, the firm that designed the courthouse in Knox. It was Osgood -who’d drawn up plans for Michigan courthouses in Kent, Mason, and Muskegon counties- that ultimately won the contract. 

The northern front of the courthouse displays most of it ornamentation through these prominent arched windows and focal entryway.

Allen’s courthouse was dedicated on August 1, 1900. It’s a landmark that terminates skyward at a clock tower that measures 102 feet tall from foundation to lightning rod8. The clock inside that tower, with faces that measure five-and-a-half feet wide, was purchased by the village of Centreville for $850 and installed prior to the courthouse’s completion.

The courthouse is two and a half stories, standing atop a raised, stone basement. It’s a big building that dominates downtown Centreville, but its scale isn’t overwhelming although the blocky massing of the courthouse implies the permanence of justice and order in a manner befitting such a structure. Similar to the courthouse in Cass County, the majority of the building features rectangular windows aside from oversized, arched portals with sandstone trim and keystones across its second story. The squared-off windows give both courthouses a more modern appearance than many of their peers from the 1890s, though the smooth brick of St. Joseph County’s helps accentuate that.

Inside, the courthouse exhibits marble floors, wide staircases, ornate woodwork, frosted glass doors, and three enormous wall murals. Although the courthouse was renovated in 1995 by architects Wigen, Tinckell, Meyer & Associates, Inc of Saginaw, many of its interior features are still intact9

The 1975 Courts Building added utility to the 75-year-old structure.

In 1972, a judge declared the old building a fire hazard and strong-armed the county into designing a new courts building. That appeared three years later as a two-story buff brick building measuring ninety feet wide by a hundred and twenty feet long just south of the courthouse. The Courts Building, as the addition is known, features narrow windows separated by semicircular pilasters. Connecting to the rear of the courthouse by first- and second-story hyphens, the newer structure took over the St. Joseph County District Court and Circuit Court, along with office space for the prosecutor, probate court, corrections and community services, and St. Joseph County’s commissioners. 

I wouldn’t call the addition harmonious to the original courthouse, but it’s unobtrusive since the greenspace that faces Centreville’s Main Street is large and unencumbered by parking spaces. For what it’s worth, the Courts Building also features its own style thanks to its pilasters and symmetry. Most importantly, though, its addition enabled the 1900 courthouse to keep serving its community even as St. Joseph County’s population has nearly tripled since it was built. I’m good with all of that!

The 1900 St. Joseph County Courthouse dominates it surroundings, including those attached to it that ensure it’s a viable center of justice for years to come.

The longer I’ve been researching and taking photos of county courthouses, the more I’ve started to appreciate modern additions whether they’re architecturally sympathetic or not. Regardless of their stylings, they keep historic buildings viable. I’m not sure that I have the data to back this up since my sample size is potato, but seven of the nineteen Michigan counties I’ve been to on this project completely lack a historic courthouse. That’s more than a third! I read somewhere that, despite the universal prominence of courthouses fires, many more were destroyed in Michigan due to their timber framing than in the surrounding states. Thankfully, the courthouse in Centreville still stands as a monument to a rural county and its citizenry. Following the path of St. Joseph County’s officials, the next courthouse we’ll visit in Michigan will be Branch County’s in Coldwater.

St. Joseph County (pop. 60,758, 33/83)
Wabash (pop. 1,383)
2/83 photographed
Built: 1899
Cost: $34,419 ($1.2 million today)
Architect: Sydney J. Osgood
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 125 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 2/18/18

Sources Cited
1 National Register of Historic Places, Michigan SP St. Joseph County Courthouse, Centrerville, St. Joseph County, Indiana, National Register #93000984.
2 Fedynsky, J. (2011). Michigan’s County Courthouses. University of Michigan Press [Ann Arbor] book.
3 Romig, W. (1986, October 1) Michigan Place Names: The History of the Founding and the Naming of More Than Five Thousand Past and Present Michigan CommunitiesGreat Lakes Books Series. Wayne State University Press [Detroit] book.
4 American Courthouses, a photo archive by John Deacon. John Deacon. 2022. Web. Retrieved October 29, 2022. 
5 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 10/29/22.
6 (See footnote 1).
7 (See footnote 1).
8 (1921) Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Centreville, St. Joseph County, Michigan. Sanborn Map Company. map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
9 Deacon, J. (n.d.). American Courthouses. A photo archive by John Deacon. Winnipeg. Web. Retrieved November 21, 2022.

One thought on “The St. Joseph County, Michigan Courthouse (1899-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s