The Third Onondaga County Courthouse

Editor's Note: Excelsior! Ever Upstate, a blog authored by Stef, has ceased to be. (You may have noticed that it has disappeared from our blog links, along with a few other defunct/dormant ones.) For the purposes of education and archiving, we're taking on the two Excelsior! posts, so if you didn't get a chance to read them the first time, here you are! Many thanks to Stef. - N

The Third Onondaga County Courthouse

Over at York Staters, Natalie has been posting a series of profiles about county courthouses. I've decided to piggyback the topic by posting a short research paper I did a few years ago on the history of the Third Onondaga County Courthouse, a building, which, unfortunately no longer stands.

Third Onondaga County Courthouse - Postcard

The life cycle of the Third Onondaga County Courthouse in Syracuse, NY is notable in its illustration of changing tastes and needs over time. The building is an example of studied design and construction, of adaptive re-use, of victimization in the time of urban renewal, and as a touch point for public outcry, sentiment, and reflection.

Clinton Square has been the historic center of Syracuse since it was colloquially known as Bogardus' Corners. Joshua Forman, who is often credited with being the father of Syracuse, lived in a frame house on the south side of Clinton Square and named the area after Governor DeWitt Clinton. The tavern built by Revolutionary War solidier Henry Bogardus could be found on the northwest corner of what is now Genesee and Salina Streets in 1806 [1]. The historic square would eventually assure Syracuse of its place as the seat of Onondaga County.

The first courthouse was on Onondaga Hill and was held in the corn house of Comfort Tyler in 1794 [2]. An intense fight took place over the proper location of the county seat, though, as the area's villages continued to grow. The second was built in 1830 and stood in the center of the block between Ash and Division Streets on North Salina Street, halfway between Syracuse and Salina. The location pleased no one, but the matter of the building's location was quickly settled in 1856 when it was destroyed in a fire [3]. After a long quarrel, the land on the corner of West Genesee and Clinton Streets was purchased for the building of what would become the Third Onondaga County Courthouse.

The architect Horatio Nelson White was commissioned to design the plans for the new courthouse. Originally from New Hampshire, White quickly established himself as the Venerable Architect upon his arrival in Syracuse in the early 1850s [4]. The cost of the building was estimated at $38,000 and the contract for the building was awarded to Timothy C. Cheney and Daniel Wilcox for $37,750 in 1856 [5]. The building was completed in 1857. Built from Onondaga gray limestone, the building was designed in what was called the Anglo-Norman style. The building was approximately sixty feet wide and one hundred feet deep with a cathedral ceiling and a tower at the front corner which rose eighty feet above street level [6]. The Court of Appeals library was constructed from 1883 to 1884. In 1889, a new roof was installed and a number of other minor improvements were made [7].

The building's life as a courthouse was relatively short-lived, though. By 1890, the County Board of Supervisors had voted to build a new court house. The new court house, to be designed by Archimedes Russell and Melvin King, was originally planned to occupy the entire block north of the Third Courthouse, but after the property owners refused to sell the land, the plans were relocated to Montgomery Street [8]. Operations permanently moved to the new Fourth Onondaga County Courthouse in 1907, fifteen years after the death of Horatio Nelson White.

The future for the Third was unclear. In a Syracuse newspaper during January of 1907, Representative Michael E. Driscoll expressed a wish for the building to be preserved as a memorial building:
What will become of it? Who will own it? Will it be permitted to stand or will it be torn down? It should be preserved and converted into a museum, an art gallery, the home of an historical association, a veterans' headquarters, or devoted to some other useful and patriotic purposeÉ
Personally, I never complained of the cramped conditions in the old building or the stifling atmosphere. The verdicts of juries, when wrong, were much more depressing. It has been the scene of the forensic efforts of two generations of lawyers. Law has been made there and history, too. Around it are clustered so many pleasant memories and delightful associations that abandoning it is like leaving home [9].

Driscoll, while comparing the Third Courthouse to the preserved structures of Europe, believed that the old stone Court House will be of more interest to future generations than the new one with its grand tower and marble halls.

For the time being, the courthouse was safe from being torn down as it was announced later that year that the Department of Public Education would be housed within its walls. Archimedes Russell prepared the plans to remodel the interior to suit their needs. The aspect of the preservation of the building's architectural beauty and historic associations came up again, though, as then-Mayor Alan Cutler Fobes expressed sympathy with the sentiment in favor of the preservation of the building, and its general appearance will not be disturbed in providing the quarters for the Department of Public Education [10]. During this remodeling, the second floor courtroom was subdivided into a corridor, while offices and a third floor was added in the original two-story room. The exterior of the building remained structurally sound, although it received little maintenance [11].

By the mid-1950s, though, the building was in danger again. In the August 5th edition of the 1956 Syracuse Post-Standard, a letter was written by E.M. Bogardus proposing that the old court house be turned into a historical group home:
It has been the hope of the writer that some day the Historical Association would feel that it rightfully belonged to them and that it would be sought to house their splendid historical exhibitÉ The citizens of Syracuse could stop this destruction if they would bestir themselves. Who will take the lead to give impetus to the movement to preserve the old Court House?

Again, the building was pulled back from the brink as the Traffic Court and some police functions were moved in. However the era of urban renewal was approaching and the construction of the new Public Safety Building raised more questions about the long-term future of the Third Courthouse. Crandell Melvin, the president of the Merchants Bank and a widely known civic leader, voiced the following opinion in the Syracuse Herald-American on April 1st, 1962:
The building is of native stone and was designed by a local architect of national fame. The building itself creates an atmosphere of character, solidarity, culture and beauty that has never been equaled. Preserving it would pass on to unborn generations a symbol and monument of the thinking and doing of the great men and women of former generations. Individuals die, but history lives forever. It would be a calamity to demolish the building.

By 1964, it seemed as though the fate of the landmark would rest with the consultants that were preparing the city's General Neighborhood Renewal Plan for 265 acres of downtown Syracuse. The private feeling among planners at the time was that the block was a downtown opportunity area and that the building would be razed to make room for a modern structure, parking, or some other similar use [12]. However, there were many parties that seemed to be showing interest in the space. As the State Bar Association's Committee for the Preservation of Historic Court Houses published their advocacy booklet, How to Save a Court House [13], two organizations showed interest in utilizing the building. The County Bar Association, led by president G. Everett DeMore, began an exploratory study to determine the feasibility of taking over the entire building for offices, meeting rooms, and a model law office, while Prof. Conrad Schuerch Jr. and Technology Club of Syracuse considered a portion of the courthouse as a possible temporary home for a museum of science and industry [14]. Both organizations hoped to rent the courthouse from the city or possibly the county for a dollar per year. Prof. Schuerch noted that there was sympathy within the club to preserve the building, but that it was beyond the scope of the organization to consider restoration [15].

It had been estimated that a modest renovation of a new boiler, plumbing, electrical installations and a new roof would cost approximately $37,000 (which was, interestingly, close to the original cost of the building's construction), but a complete renovation would end up totaling at least $100,000 [16]. The high cost of reconstruction had killed most hope of maintaining the courthouse as a public building and it seemed that a private developer would be the only savior who could afford to gut the structure to its limestone walls [17]. Still, some in the city remained optimistic and hoped to eventually house the Office of Urban Improvement within the old courthouse. A last chance was given to the building in June of 1965 as the city's Crusade for Opportunity, the central office for the citys youth and War on Poverty programs, moved 45 members of its staff into the building as a temporary measure [18]. Sadly, it was only a temporary solution. Despite the continual calls to save the Third Onondaga County Courthouse, it was, in the end, a doomed landmark in the face of urban improvement.

Ironically, the courthouse faced destruction just as a survey was being published by The State Council on the Arts, which placed the Third Courthouse on a list of sixty-three Onondaga County buildings of architectural importance. The study, Architecture Worth Saving in Onondaga County, was prepared by the Syracuse University School of Architecture under the guidance of Prof. Harley J. McKee, a renowned preservation scholar. McKee recommended the adaptive re-use of the courthouse as a small museum and auditorium and provided speculative plans for such a rebuilding [19]. He offered a harsh indictment of the city and county's planning practices: We have consistently chosen from among the best when tearing down or mutilating the buildings which our generation inherited" [20]. McKee also used the courthouse to question the current urban renewal projects in the city, recommending a study of the entire Clinton Square, quoting Peter Andrews, the then-professor of regional planning at Syracuse University:
While the city is to be commended for pushing ahead with the development of the Community Plaza, it seems too bad to let the planning of that one area overbalance the planning of other parts of downtown. If the city were to turn its attention to Clinton Square, it might, with far less cost than required for clearance and building of new public spaces, produce a distinctive and well-located public pedestrian area21]. [

McKee sums up the importance of the old courthouse with the following statement:
It hardly seems justifiable that an existing building of functional use as well as recognized cultural value should be allowed to disappear in the interest of developing yet unseen buildings. While the appeal of fresh new facilities is understandable, we must realize that a building such as the Third Onondaga County Courthouse is irreplaceable, not only because of its historic associations, its special period character and distinctive architecture, but even in more calculable terms, because it is unlikely that masonry construction of this sort, with its labor-consuming cut stone detailing, will ever be economically possible to build again [22].

McKee's recommendations were for naught, though, as the courthouse finally gave way to the city's urban renewal push in the early months of 1968. However, as wrecking booms moved into place, the courthouse and the people of Syracuse received a small gift from the demolition contractor. The firm charged with demolishing the structure would donate their time and labor to chart the 37-foot tower portion and take it down, stone by stone, to be numbered and saved, in hopes of someday being reconstructed [23]. A group known as S.A.V.E (Society for the Advancement of Visual Environment) championed the cause and offered possibilities for five possible sites for the reconstructed tower. They suggested placing the tower on the eastern side of Route 81 as a southern gateway to Syracuse, on the then-projected site of Onondaga Community College at Onondaga Hill as a campus landmark, back in Clinton Square as a monument to the past, on the South Plaza next to the Everson Museum as an artistic addition, or in front of the then-New York Telephone Company Building on E. Fayette St. as a center of interest [24]. As of the writing of this paper in 2004, the stones remain in storage, shrink-wrapped in heavy plastic to protect against deterioration. They are currently stored on city-owned property near Hancock Airport [25].

The entire block of Clinton Square once occupied by the Third Onondaga County Courthouse and other buildings now contains the Syracuse Newspapers Building. Built in 1971, the modern structure was designed by the Ginsberg Associates architectural firm of New York. The 230,000 sq. ft. building housed the presses for the Post-Standard and Herald-Journal newspaper plant along with offices [26]. Reminders of the old courthouse exist in Elmira and Watertown, as Horatio Nelson White used almost identical plans to the Syracuse building to design the courthouses for each county. The Elmira courthouse was built with brick and limestone trim. The Watertown courthouse has a reversed faade [27].

The Third Onondaga County Courthouse serves as a reminder of both the triumphs and mistakes of a community. Through its life cycle, it was utilized as a place of work and justice, lauded as an architectural gem, ignored as an out-dated relic, revered as a link to a grand past, and lost to tides of change. It is the hope of the author that some of the community pride that may have been lost to the leveling and reshaping of urban renewal could be restored and focused by the reconstruction of the Courthouse's tower in a public space. It illustrates the link of architectural heritage to a community, both in the community's effect on the face it presents to the world and in how our past is inextricably sewn into the fabric of such buildings.


1. Evamaria Hardin, Jon Crispin, and Onondaga Historical Association., Syracuse Landmarks: An AIA Guide to Downtown and Historic Neighborhoods, 1st ed. (New York Onondaga Historical Association: Syracuse University Press, 1993) pgs. 1, 8, 33.
2. "What Happens to our 'Old Courthouse'?," (Syracuse, NY), February 8, 1963
3. "County Seat Fight Lasted Many Years," in Onondaga County Court Houses: Newspaper Clippings ca 1900-1973 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Public Library Local History Department, 1973)
4. Other notable buildings designed by White in the Syracuse area are The Church of the Messiah, the Plymouth Congregational Church, the Grace Episcopal Church, the Gridley Building (formerly Onondaga County Savings Bank) in Clinton Square, The Wietung Building, and the Hall of Languages at Syracuse University
5. "'The Old Court House on Clinton Square should be preserved.'" Sunday Herald (Syracuse, NY), February 24, 1907
6. Preservation Association of Central New York, Syracuse Then and Now: The Third Onondaga County Courthouse,
7. "The Court House - Comfort Tyler's Corn House Served as the First One - The Village and Hill Rivalry"," in Onondaga County Court Houses: Newspaper Clippings ca 1900-1973 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Public Library Local History Department, 1973)
8. Preservation Association of Central New York, Syracuse Then and Now: The Third Onondaga County Courthouse
9. "To Make Landmark of Old Court House," unknown (Syracuse, NY), January 3, 1907
10. "School Board Goes to Old Court House (1907)," in Onondaga County Court Houses: Newspaper Clippings ca 1900-1973 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Public Library Local History Department, 1973)
11. Preservation Association of Central New York, Syracuse Then and Now: The Third Onondaga County Courthouse
12. Richard G. Case, "Progress May Claim Old Court House," Herald-American (Syracuse, NY), February 9, 1964
13. Ibid.
14. Richard G. Case, "Old Courthouse Wins Lease on Life," Herald-American (Syracuse, NY), July 5, 1964
15. Ibid.
16. Richard G. Case, "Crusaders to occupy courthouse," Herald-American (Syracuse, NY), June 13, 1965
17. Case, "Progress May Claim Old Court House,"
18. Case, "Crusaders to occupy courthouse,"
19. Richard G. Case, "Old Courthouse Could Become Museum-Auditorium," Herald-American
(Syracuse, NY), March 22, 1964
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid.
22. New York State Council on the Arts, Architecture Worth Saving in Onondaga County
(Syracuse, NY: 1964) p. 196
23. "Tower stone to be saved," Herald-Journal (Syracuse, NY), Jan. 30, 1968
24. "Readers Asked to Choose Court House Tower Site," in Onondaga County Court Houses: Newspaper Clippings ca 1900-1973 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Public Library Local History Department, 1973)
25. Preservation Association of Central New York, Remains of the Third Onondaga County Courthouse,
26. Hardin, Crispin, and Onondaga Historical Association., Syracuse Landmarks: An AIA Guide to Downtown and Historic Neighborhoods p.42

27. Elinore Taylor Horning, The Man Who Changed the Face of Syracuse: Horatio Nelson White (Mexico, NY: Elinore T. Horning, 1988) p.28

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