History can be told through books, diaries, oral traditions, and even art. And as we have learned, through post cards. They tell a story of time and place, like photographs, but often with interesting commentary on the other side of the card.
There is of course a written history of our courthouses, but as the saying goes, (by way of paraphrase) one image is worth a thousand words. Browsing through an old antique shop some years ago I ran across a pile of post cards, marked 10 cents each, sitting on an old desk. Looking through the stack I encountered a courthouse or two and was charmed by the imagery. From then on, and whenever in a used whatever shop I would look for the inevitable shoe box that held these little treasures. Thankfully, they captured an era a century before our present epoch in which a greeting is sent by text.
Courthouses seemed one of the favorite images, others included beaches, skyscrapers, trolley cars, and parks. For a lawyer the courthouse image held special appeal as it often was an earlier incarnation of the present courthouse, and sometimes was an earlier, demolished building that had been largely forgotten.
The New York collection is notable because many of the courthouses harbored great trials as well as notable judges and lawyers. We hope you enjoy the display and the unique history that goes with it.
Ulster County Courthouse
The Ulster County Courthouse was built in 1818 and has a long history. This includes it being the site of Isabella Baumfree’s (also known as Sojourner Truth) lawsuit to recover her son from slavery in Alabama in 1827. When she succeeded in 1828 she became the first black woman to win a lawsuit in the US.
Herkimer County Courthouse
Built in 1873, the Herkimer County Courthouse would host one of New York’s most notorious trials: the murder trial of Chester Gillette. His 1906 trial for the murder of Grace Brown would later be executed and the story retold by Theodore Drieser in his novel An American Tragedy. (The history of the trial and the creative works it inspired is provided in a lecture by Prof. Susan Herman.)
New York County Courthouse
While the current New York County Courthouse is recognizable to many today for its frequent appearances on TV, few know that its original design called for a much larger, circular structure. It was due to the Great Depression that architect Guy Lowell’s design was scaled down to its current size.