What would you think if I told you that one of the most impressive Prairie School masterpieces is a courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa? Well, it's true, and you can find out more on claass HAUS today.
Located a bit out of the way from the usual Prairie School pilgrimages (Oak Park, Illinois, Spring Green, Wisconsin, etc.) the Woodbury County Courthouse (1915-1918) might just be one of the most remarkable public-use buildings in the United States. A structurally imposing and stylistically unified masterwork created by three of the era's most important Prairie School architects, the courthouse remains a relic of the early twentieth century's innovative aesthetic convictions. Unfortunately, the building has never (likely because of its geography) really enjoyed the attention it so deserves, and while most architecture buffs and Prairie School obsessives know of the courthouse, few actually make the trip to Sioux City, Iowa, to see the impressive institution in person (myself included).
In 1914, William L. Steele, an architect that had worked in Louis Sullivan's Chicago office, won a local competition for the design of Woodbury County's new courthouse. His proposal for a modernized Gothic Revival building earned the support of county commissioners, but after securing the commission, Steele began to push for a more contemporary and radical scheme. Turning to former colleagues and fellow Sullivan acolytes, George G. Elmslie and William G. Purcell, Steele assembled a team capable of creating a building that was purely Midwestern in origin. Initially, Steele hired Elmslie, known for his lavish naturalistic ornament, to design the building's organic detail. But instead, Elmslie submitted a design for the entire building (the Sullivanesque monument that stands today) and moved to Sioux City to oversee construction of the modern courthouse.
The only major public building in the Prairie Style, the Woodbury County Courthouse is a civic masterpiece. The design, defined by a public box-like volume and an eight-story tall office tower, revels in its Prairie School details and a functional division of space. Sand-colored bands of Roman brick, organic terra cotta trim, and modulated stained glass windows contribute to the building's overall stylistic language. On the west facade, the main public entrance is marked by stylized relief sculptures by famed sculptor Alfonso Iannelli (you know him because he was a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright). Inside, the building revolves around an impressive central rotunda covered with an intricately patterned stained glass dome. Ornate Elmslie-style ornament decorates the rotunda and lobby spaces, and four murals by Chicago artist John W. Norton depict scenes of early twentieth-century life. In true Sullivan form, the vertical office tower with its distinctive narrow blocks and banks of clerestory windows houses the building's minor institutional functions.
In many ways, an homage to Louis Sullivan, the Woodbury County Courthouse embraces modern aesthetic ideals while adhering to the traditional forms of American institutional design. Much like Bertram Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol, the courthouse is neatly symmetrical with its plan dictated by interior function rather than stylistic necessity. The result is a complex and visually rich total work of art that combines the formal expression of the Prairie School with the traditional functions of a civic institution. Representing the progress made in the quest for a truly modern and indigenous architecture, the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City stands as a monument to the Prairie School, a building entrenched in the democratic ideals of American art, liberty, and justice.
It's pretty stunning right? The Woodbury County Courthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993. You can find more information (start planning your visit) here.
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Entrance to the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa (2016). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2016630138.
All photographs (unless otherwise noted) are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Purcell & Elmslie, William Steele, Alfonso Iannelli, John W. Norton. Woodbury County Courthouse, Seventh & Douglas Streets, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa. Documentation compiled after 1933. Library of Congress, ia0110.
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