Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Marion County's take-charge courthouse

There's no question on the Knoxville town square about which building is in charge --- this magnificent 1896 pile of Berea (Ohio) sandstone designed by Mifflin E. Bell as the seat of Marion County government. So I took a few photos yesterday while there to do a little shopping at The Next Chapter, a great indie bookstore and gift emporium on the square's south side --- new favorite among Knoxville's attractions.

This is one of two M.E. Bell courthouses in Iowa. The other (left), built as a federal courthouse and post office in Keokuk, now serves as the South Lee County Courthouse. Yes, Lee County (along the Mississippi in Iowa's southeast corner) has two courthouses. The much smaller but more pleasing North Lee Courthouse, built in 1841, is located in Fort Madison. Bell's Knoxville courthouse is much more pleasing than his Keokuk effort.

Bell specialized for many years in designing federal courhouses, which was the reason for the Keokuk commission. I'm not sure why the Marion County supervisors decided to employ him. He was practicing in Chicago during the 1890s and died there during 1904, so the Knoxville building is one of his later efforts.

It's interesting to compare the Knoxville courthouse to Lucas County's, designed during 1893 by Des Moines architects Foster and Liebbe. Both are Romanesque, but the Chariton expression of that style is considerably smaller, more in scale with the town square surrounding it, less of an "I'm-in-charge-here" structure.

The Knoxville courthouse is a full three stories. The first floor originally contained among other things the county jail. The Lucas County courthouse is two full stories above a raised basement served by split foyers that force one to choose between going up or down upon entering.

The interior detail of the Marion County Courthouse is substantially more elaborate, too --- beautifully carved woodwork, a rotunda and a courtroom --- considerably jacked around with during a 1970s remodeling --- that features stained glass windows and a circular ceiling panel.

Frankly, the interior of Lucas County's courthouse --- attacked by the plastic paneling and lowered ceiling monster during the 1970s --- seems shabby by comparison. What we need here is a prince or princess charming with a couple of million bucks to put things aright.

But it is the grand central clock tower of the Marion County Courthouse that is primarily responsible for giving it presence. Without that confection, it would be just a kind of grim pile of rock.

Next time you're in Knoxville, take a closer look. Don't miss the carved stone detail and Romanesque arches on the west entrance front --- the most successful and most approachable of Bell's four facades.

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