Only the best: County courthouse at State and Main has a temple-like appearance

Caption
The DeKalb County Courthouse is shown decked out with red, white and blue bunting for the 1906 Independence Day parade. Note the awnings over several windows.

The Sycamore Historic District: Location 6B

By Steve Bigolin

On March 1, 1905, the special building committee of the DeKalb County Board of Supervisors notified the board that work on the new county courthouse was complete, and the structure was ready for occupancy, following some 18 months of construction. While the 1906 &#8220Illustrated Prospectus of Sycamore, Illinois” gave the building's cost as $175,000, most sources say that general contractor William J. McAlpine bid $137,964 on the project. Glen Turpoff's book &#8220They Too Cast Shadows: A Tribute to the Builders of Northern Illinois” indicated that McAlpine may not have made money on the Sycamore and Dixon courthouses. Based on an artist's rendering that appeared in a number of contemporary sources, the DeKalb County Courthouse was erected much the way it was proposed to look. The building measures approximately 128 feet by 100 feet and is three stories high, with a basement added later in sections. The exterior is Bedford Indiana limestone, with a buff finish. The specifications - which still survive - called for all of the stone to be only of the finest quality, and free of cracks or imperfections of any kind. The courthouse is situated on the public square in such a way that it is impressively set off, no matter how one approaches. The double doors on the main façade are positioned at the center of the south side, with heavily carved stone brackets supporting a lintel overhead. Four two-story fluted columns, topped by composite capitals (blending Ionic and Corinthian elements) extend up from the second floor to the cornice level. A small balcony-like area on the second floor is accented with stone balustrades and other decorative detail. Each of the second-floor windows in the east and west wings has a row of six balustrades below the sills. The sills form a continuous stringcourse around the structure. The pediment above the front colonnade is heavily ornamented and contains classically inspired sculpture relating to the concepts of law and justice. In addition, the seal of the state of Illinois occupies center stage. It is my understanding that, as funds were running low, the decision was made to substitute this stonework for a clock face that would have carried on the tradition of the four clocks on the sides of the cupola from the 1850 courthouse. Stained-glass windows top the windows of the third-floor circuit court room in a transom-like fashion. The center one forms a semicircular fanlight over the clear glass windows, with a decorative keystone on the exterior wall surface. The round, or &#8220bird's eye,” windows on both sides are outlined with garlands and swags. The cornice atop the roof is composed of three rows of eight balustrades each and stone blocks. At the peak of the pediment, meanwhile, is a striking Anthemion, a decorative ornament commonly found in Greek Revival and Classical architecture. The upper corners of the center pavilion contain torch-like projections of a highly decorative nature. Extending from the south pediment to that on the north side, the roof is enclosed by a continuous expanse of stonework and balustrades. The north side of the courthouse is less heavily ornamented than the State Street façade, but distinctive nonetheless. The driveway off Exchange Street comes uphill and goes under a sturdy stone porte-cochere, a feature generally found on more prestigious late-19th-century homes - such as the nearby Boynton and Townsend houses on North Main Street. Four pilasters with composite capitals lend this side of the courthouse a temple-like appearance. Three tall stained-glass windows on the north wall are best seen and admired from inside the building. The pediment and entablature here are fairly plain, however. The courthouse was positioned in such a way as to give it a very commanding presence for passersby on foot or in a vehicle. --- Steve Bigolin is a DeKalb County history expert.

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