Otsego County Courthouse

Cooperstown Village, Otsego County, NY

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The Otsego County Courthouse (193 Main Street) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972; Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1]

An example of a polychrome brick public building designed for a small, rural county seat, the Otsego County Court House has sheltered the county legal system since 1880. Although admired as an important community landmark today, the exuberant building was ahead of its time for nineteenth-century Cooperstown. The matter of its architectural design was a most controversial issue during the period of the Court House's construction.

The building was designed by Archimedes Russell (1840-1915) well-known New York State architect from Syracuse and is representative of his middle period. Other of Russell's works include: the John R. Crouse College (1889) and the Administration Building at Syracuse University; the Onondaga County Court House; the Park Central Presbyterian Church (1871) in Syracuse; the Sibley and McGraw Buildings at Cornell University; and the Camillus Baptist Church (1879-80) in Camillus.

Russell was born in 1840 in Andover, Massachusetts, the son of a carpenter and builder. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a carriage and sign painter, and at fifteen he joined his father in building. When he was twenty, Russell entered the architectural office of Horatio N. White for five years, opening his own office on January 1, 1868, and continuing his practice well into the twentieth century. His office was continued by Melvin King, who was succeeded by Harry King and Curtis King.

The Otsego County Court House was the successor to three previous court houses in Cooperstown, which had served the county since 1791, On June 15, 1880, a crowd of 10,000 persons from a widespread area gathered to see the cornerstone of the building laid with Masonic ceremonies.

Much public discussion centered about the new Court House during the summer of 1879. The work was in the charge of a committee composed of L. I. Burditt of Cooperstown, L. McCredy of Richfield Springs and H. G Wood of Oneonta. The Freeman's Journal of October 16, 1879 reported that "the Building Committee are about completing their plans and specifications for a new Court House..." The Minutes of the Board of Supervisors of November 20, 1879 include a resolution reading that "...a plan and specifications for a new Court House have been presented to this Board by the Committee appointed at its special session..."

The advertisement of the Building Committee "To Builders" was printed on the Freeman's Journal of December 25, 1879, page 2. It advised that sealed proposals would be opened on January 20, 1880 for the construction of a brick and stone court house in Cooperstown "in accordance with plans and specifications" which could be seen at Burditt's office in Cooperstown January 1-10, and in Wood's office in Oneonta, January 10-20.

The newspaper of January 22, 1880 reported that seventeen bids had been opened, but not one was low enough for acceptance.

The specifications were amended, and the Freeman's Journal of January 29, 1880 reported that the Court House was "to be built, the contract under the amended specifications having been let to S. R. Barnes and the McCabe brothers for $24,995. The building committee marked out the location of the court house yesterday." The Court House was subsequently erected on its present site on upper Main Street where it commands a view of the major portion of the village of Cooperstown.

The main walls were completed and the roof nearly so, reported the Freeman's Journal of September 30, 1880, and the same paper of November 11, 1880 reported that:

The Court House approaches completion. There are different views as to the style of architecture; as a rule, the criticism is unfavorable...if there are faults about the building, they are wholly with the plans of the architect and not with the builders...

It is interesting that the architect's name was not mentioned in this article. The residents of the village apparently believed that the building would serve functionally, but found its architectural design unappealing. The Court House, with its combination of tower, polychrome details and stained glass windows offended the provincial taste of the 1800's. Only in the twentieth century have the building's features found favor in the public eye.

In another article, the Freeman's Journal of Saturday, March 12, 1881 reported that:

The new Court Room, occupied for the first time on Monday, (March 7, 1881) answers the purposes for which it was designed, most completely ...As we have before remarked of the Court House, it is in all the essentials an excellent building; the defects are those of the architect.

The architect, again, was not named. The court room has served to the present day in its original condition, adequate with regard to space and notable for its fine woodwork detail.

An architectural landmark for the village of Cooperstown designed by the noted New York State architect Archimedes Russell, the Otsego County Court House has successfully served the county and its legal body for nearly a century. It has retained a significant position in the community both through its governmental function and as a visual link between nineteenth and twentieth century Cooperstown.

  1. Rennenkampf, Lenore M., Otsego County Courthouse, 1972, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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