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Magnificent Setting: Lush details abound at county courthouse at State and Main streets

The Sycamore Historic District: Location 6C

By Steve Bigolin

Interior spaces of the DeKalb County Courthouse was very beautifully restored and renovated from November 1984 to June 1987. The work was completed in time to coincide with the DeKalb County Sesquicentennial in 1987 (1837-1987). Once inside the modern front doors of the courthouse, one can see the original heavily ornamented beveled-glass doors. They are secured open in the small vestibule, nonfunctionally, but are there to be admired nonetheless. Each one is said to weigh a few hundred pounds, and they were among the last things installed in the building. Stepping through the inner doorway to the main lobby, one sees the wide marble staircase that rises from the center of the hall to the second floor. The stairs and wainscoting in the central area of the courthouse are done in gray Tennessee marble. All of this material and the hexagonal marble flooring with its Greek-key border design are original to the structure. The central area contains the stairs, lobbies, stained-glass windows and the two original courtrooms. The staircase has bronze railings with mahogany banisters. An unusual decorative detail in the railings is the swastika. Although closely associated in the 20th century with Nazi Germany, it was actually an ancient Sanskrit symbol, representing the sun or fire. Use of the swastika has been traced back to 3rd-millennium-B.C. Asia, to Bronze Age Europe and to North American tribal groups such as the Navajo, among others, according to the 2005 edition of Encyclopedia Americana. Throughout the courthouseıs lobby areas, the plasterwork and other wall and ceiling decoration add still other touches of elegance to the historic interior. Much of this detail benefited from professional decorating expertise during the 1984-1987 restoration and renovation of the courthouse. Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wis., got the contract to restore the buildingıs central area, at a cost of approximately $100,000. As one climbs the stairs to the second floor, a pair of bronze ramıs heads on stylized bodies come into view. They serve as newel posts for the stairway up to the landing between the second and third floors (An identical pair can be seen facing these as one goes back downstairs.) At the base of each figure is a shield. I am told that the ram was both a biblical symbol of justice and an animal known for its strength. As a result, their presence in the courthouse is most appropriate. Standing on the landing between floors, one can get a good look at the stained-glass windows and the elevator wall. The windows are original to the courthouse and were magnificently restored in 2004 and 2005. The elevator, meanwhile, was installed in the 1950s. Prior to that time, the only way to get to the upper floors was to walk up the stairs. From the landing, a person could turn either left or right to reach stairs to the third floor. The left-hand stairway was removed in favor of the elevator. The third-floor courtroom at the top of the marble stairs is the buildingıs single most distinctive interior space. As with so many other rooms and areas in the courthouse, its furnishings are original. The wainscoting, wall sconces, chandeliers, plasterwork, beveled-glass doors and stained-glass skylight and windows all add to its dignity and ambiance. This majestic courtroom was used in 1981 as a movie set. Courtroom scenes in the 1982 TV movie ³Will,² the story of Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, were filmed there. Another unusual event staged at the courthouse was a catered dinner for more than 200 persons in the summer of 1990. Presiding Judge Rex Meilinger announced his plans to retire from the bench partway through the last term to which he was elected. When asked at which restaurant he would like his retirement dinner held, he said, ³At the courthouse.² He assured the county board that this was legal, and the plans were set in motion. Tables were placed in the three lobbies, with the judge and his wife seated on the second floor. The circuit clerkıs office on the first floor was transformed into a bar for the evening. After dinner, the third-floor courtroom was the scene of a celebrity roast of his honor, with banker/lawyer John Castle serving as master of ceremonies. During the 1984-1987 restoration and renovation of the courthouse, a new first-floor courtroom was created and additional basement space excavated. Since that time, courtrooms also have been added on the second and third floors, so that today the venerable DeKalb County Courthouse contains a total of five such facilities. ‹‹‹ Steve Bigolin is a DeKalb County history expert.

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