Jefferson County Courthouse

Watertown City, Jefferson County, NY

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The Jefferson County Courthouse Complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. []


Built of red brick lavishly trimmed with limestone, the Jefferson County Courthouse stands on a corner site at the Arsenal-Sherman Streets intersection, two blocks west of Watertown's Public Square Historic District, the nineteenth century commercial heart of the city.

The 1862 Jefferson County Courthouse faces north onto Arsenal Street and is surrounded by two later county buildings — the red brick Jefferson County Clerk's Office (1883-4) south of the Courthouse facing Sherman Street and the greystone Surrogates Office (1905) east of the Courthouse on Arsenal Street — forming a functional Jefferson County Complex.

The Jefferson County Courthouse is square in layout and set on a high stone foundation measuring 70' on Arsenal Street (north side) and 120' on Sherman Street (west side). The building is two stories with a square three story tower on the northwest corner. A central section on the front (north) facade juts out with a three bay wide arcade on the first floor. The second floor where the courtroom is located is almost twice the height of the first floor, and the two are separated by a stone belt course.

The courtroom in the second story is lit by a series of elongated arched top windows in contrast to the first floor windows most of which have simple stone lintels. On the front (Arsenal Street) facade almost all the windows on both stories are trimmed with stone quoins, a motif repeated in the smaller two story section to the rear of the main building facing on Sherman Street. This three bay wide section originally served as the Jefferson County Clerks Office and has its own entrance. Just south of an alley stands its replacement, the 1884 Jefferson County Clerks Office.

The Jefferson County Courthouse has a decorative stone cornice with crenellations at each corner. The gable roof was covered in 1966 with asphalt shingles and metal flashings. For many years the Jefferson County Courthouse was painted and in 1952 was sandblasted which has caused considerable deterioration.

On the interior a pair of spiral staircases flank the main entranceway and draw one immediately up to the second and principal floor where the lofty courtroom occupies most of the space. The first floor is offices. The interior was remodelled in 1938 and updated from time to time since then with temporary partitions in the office space and lowered acoustical ceilings, however, much of the original detailing survives including marble fireplaces and oak woodwork. The floors have been reinforced with steel beams.

The Jefferson County Clerks Office is a two and a half story red brick building with a hipped roof and banded belt courses and window trim. The first floor windows have round arches and the second floor windows simple stone lintels. A front (west) dormer has a checkerboard motif in the gable. The building is basically rectangular with two one story additions made in 1933 and 1953 stretching to the rear (east).

The rough ashlar Surrogates Office is two stories and has a hipped roof trimmed with a copper cornice. The third building of the Jefferson County Courthouse Complex to be built, it reflects the fenestration pattern established by the two earlier buildings with arched windows on the first floor and simple lintels on the second. Like the other two buildings, the Surrogates Office has a belt course delineating the two stories as well as a narrow course attaching the first floor arched window tops. The interior has a ceramic mosaic tile floor in the hall and an iron staircase leading to a second floor chamber which has been partitioned in recent years. A fireproof vault built into the building is now inadequate for the county needs.

All three buildings are currently in use, but the Clerks Building (now used for the Auto Bureau) and the Surrogates Building are both in jeopardy as the county plans to enlarge the new county office building east of the Surrogates Building.


Interlaced with common historical threads and architectural themes, the three buildings of the Jefferson County Courthouse Complex span the years from 1862 to 1905. The complex pivots around the masterful Horatio Nelson White-designed Jefferson County Courthouse surrounded by two smaller satellite structures built at later dates by notable Watertown figures.

After ten years of delays and controversy over cost, location and construction materials the Jefferson County Courthouse was finally completed in 1861, and soon afterwards recognized as "an ornament to the city and a credit to the county."[1] The first Jefferson County Courthouse had burned in 1821, and the second one had been judged too "dilapidated" and "unfit to hold courts" in by 1851, thus this new Jefferson County Courthouse was the third for Jefferson County in its fifty-five year history.

Syracuse's Horatio Nelson White, "the most productive architect in the city" at that time,[2] designed the Jefferson County Courthouse. The building is one of a trio of nearly identical courthouses in Central New York State designed by White in a five year period (1857-1862). The Jefferson County Courthouse as well as the Chemung County Courthouse (1860) are diminutive versions of White's highly successful Onondaga County Courthouse completed in 1857 (demolished 1968). Each building had the same massing fenestration, cornice detail, and side tower (although the front facade of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Watertown was a reversal of its two predecessors with the tower on the right corner instead of the left.)[3] Contemporaries described the design as "Anglo-Norman" and noted its striking contrast with "that in general use in Court Houses."[4]

The decorative elements of the Jefferson County Courthouse could not disguise its practical problems in construction. The minutes of the County Board of Supervisors tell of endless difficulties with drainage on the boggy site, delays in the construction and roofing schedule. The minutes of November 11th 1861 read:

"The work would have been in a more forward state, had not the contractors sustained some embarrassment and delay in procuring good suitable brick."[5]

The unlucky contractor referred to was John Hose who had come to Watertown from Herkimer County in 1840. Hose's troubles with the Jefferson County Courthouse in 1862 appear to have not seriously marred his reputation; the Jefferson County Courthouse and his other important Watertown commissions — the Stone Street Presbyterian Church and the Agricultural Insurance Company Building — were only preludes to his position supervising the construction of the Auburn State Prison in 1865 and later the Hospital for the Insane in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1881, Hose returned to Watertown and in 1887 formed an architectural firm, Hose and Kieff, with one of his student-apprentices, David Kieff, who was twenty-one years old at the time. Kieff appears to have continued the tradition of his teacher and partner as architect of the greystone Jefferson County Surrogates Building in 1905. Perhaps it is this close association between Kieff and Hose which accounts for the sympathy and compatibility of the turn-of-the-century Surrogates Building with its neighbor, the Jefferson County Courthouse, constructed by Hose 50 years earlier. Other Watertown buildings designed by David Kieff are the City Hall (1896-7), the Herald Building (1896) and the Otis House (1894).

The third building in the Jefferson County Courthouse Complex is the red brick Clerks Office facing Sherman Street built in 1884. J.W. Griffin was the architect of the Clerks Office and John Hardiman the builder. The cost of this new detached fireproof building almost equalled the original cost of the courthouse built 20 years earlier.[6] Griffin, like Kieff, had also been associated with John Hose on the outset of his career. He had worked for Hose from 1855 to 1860 just prior to the construction of the Courthouse. By 1868 Griffin established his own architectural practice and during the later half of the nineteenth century, a period of rapid growth for Watertown, his commercial buildings and private residences became well-known throughout the city. When Griffin died in 1917 the local newspaper reported:

"At the present time there is hardly a street upon which there is not at least one building that was constructed according to his plans."[6]

The Jefferson County Courthouse Complex embraces a courthouse with a distinguished New York State pedigree due to the combined involvement of architect Horatio Nelson White and builder John Hose supported by two later buildings of important Watertown architects to form one of the finest clusters of county buildings in the State.


  1. [1]L.H. Everts, History of Jefferson County, N.Y. (J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia: 1878) p.82.
  2. [2]Harley J. McKee, "Horatio Nelson White 1814-1892" Part II, Empire State Architect: March/April 1961. p.28.
  3. [3]Harley J.McKee, "Horatio Nelson White 1814-1892" Part II, Empire State Architect: March/April 1961. p.29.
  4. [4]As cited in Harley J. McKee, "Horatio Nelson White 1814-1892" Part II, Empire State Architect: March/April 1961. p.29.
  5. [5]Journal and Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors of the County of Jefferson, for the Year 1861. p.6.
  6. [6]Watertown Times, Dec. 7th 1917. The courthouse cost $25,488.89 originally but with the continual problems of drainage the final cost came up to $35,000. The Clerks office cost $21,384.23 plus $1,010 for the architect and $1,532.39 for the furniture.

Brooke, C. E., New York State Division for Historic Preservation, Jefferson Count Courthouse Complex, nomination document, 1973, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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