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Trials and tribulations slowed construction of county gem: 1850s courthouse was replaced by 1900s facility in the square at State and Main streets

An artist’s rendering of the DeKalb County Courthouse from the 1905 “Standard Atlas of DeKalb County, Illinois.”

The Sycamore Historic District: Location 6A

By Steve Bigolin

Volumes could be written about the 100-plus-year-old DeKalb County Courthouse. Constructed from 1903-1905, it has more than withstood the test of time. The 1906 &#8220Illustrated Prospectus of Sycamore, Illinois” praised it by saying &#8220there is not a building in the state that is better adapted, more substantially built, or furnished in better taste.” DeKalb barbed-wire barons Isaac Ellwood and Jacob Haish joined forces in the early 1900s, even though they were manufacturing and banking rivals, in an effort to relocate the county seat from Sycamore to DeKalb, and in the process get the proposed new courthouse built in DeKalb. Success in the effort would make DeKalb the manufacturing, educational and governmental center of the county. To make a long story short, on Sept. 26, 1901, the county's Board of Supervisors approved a $100,000 allocation for the construction of a new courthouse. The so-called &#8220Battle of the County Seat” soon began in earnest, with offers and counteroffers galore put forward by Sycamore and DeKalb. As the war raged on over where the county seat should be, a $140,000 appropriation was passed on June 8, 1903, superseding the original. Additionally, it provided for building temporary storage vaults to house county records during the construction phase. Despite the suits and countersuits - which actually continued unabated until late in 1904 - ground was broken for the courthouse on Oct. 29, 1903, with the appropriate Masonic services. Crowe Brothers Co. was hired to demolish the 1850 courthouse. Early on, plans were set in motion for having the courthouse built on the same site as the 1850 one - the public square in downtown Sycamore. The basic design of the 1900 Lee County Courthouse was selected as the model after which DeKalb County's would be patterned. Charles E. Brush of Chicago and William J. McAlpine of Dixon were the team responsible for creating the Dixon facility. Brush was a son of Daniel Harmon Brush, founder of the Illinois town of Carbondale. Brush had built his reputation on projects in Kansas City and Chicago. In this area, he won the 1895 state-sponsored competition to design what was later called Altgeld Hall at what became Northern Illinois University. Isaac Ellwood took him on as his architect of favor after that, hiring Brush to remodel Ellwood House in DeKalb in 1898; design the Perry Ellwood House at 417 N. First St., DeKalb, in 1899 to 1900, and the Dr. John Williston Cook House at 411 College Ave., DeKalb, in 1899 to 1900; and do remodeling for Hiram Ellwood at 329 N. Third St. in DeKalb. McAlpine was general contractor of the courthouse. Originally from Ashtabula, Ohio, he settled in Sycamore in 1873. Either alone or in partnership with others, he made a name for himself locally before moving to Dixon in 1888. He was involved with such commissions as Sycamore's East School at 410 E. Elm St. in 1881-82, and the Congregational Church at Somonauk and High streets in 1884-85, the latter project with architect George O. Garnsey. McAlpine designed and erected the Frederick B. Townsend House at 331 N. Main St. in 1892 and had been general contractor of Altgeld Hall and the Lee County Courthouse. Courthouse differs from Lee County's The DeKalb County Courthouse differs from its Lee County cousin on the exterior: The Dixon building contains a rooftop dome, and also is longer and wider than Sycamore's courthouse, making its overall proportions grander. The cornerstone of Dixon's courthouse has Charles Brush's and William McAlpine's names inscribed on it. While McAlpine was indeed the general contractor of the DeKalb County Courthouse, Brush was not the architect. The Chicago firm of Watson and Hazelton gets credit for the design, with Herbert T. Hazelton named as architect. I have never come across a reason why Brush was not retained for the job. The 1999 book &#8220They Too Cast Shadows: A Tribute to the Builders of Northern Illinois” by Glen Turpoff relates that the Chicago company was an award-winner. McAlpine is credited with more than 150 building commissions during his career, but he had his share of problems with the Lee County and DeKalb County courthouses. He apparently went over budget at Dixon and attempted to cover his tracks in Sycamore. Labor conflicts and weather conditions took their tolls on the two-year construction time frame he was handed for Sycamore, however. As I indicated already, in spite of all the legal actions, wranglings, etc., between Sycamore and DeKalb over a period of more than three years, work moved forward on the new courthouse anyway. At one point in the proceedings, Jacob Haish had even gone so far as to have plans drawn for what the courthouse would look like if it were constructed in DeKalb. It was a grandiose Classical Revival structure more closely resembling a state capitol than a simple county courthouse. In my opinion, such was Haish's way of doing things. --- Steve Bigolin is a DeKalb County history expert.

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