Courthouse Place – Cook County Criminal Courts Building
by: chicago designslinger
[Courthouse Place – Cook County Criminal Courts Building (1894) Otto H. Matz, architect / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
It was hot. But what else would you expect in July, in Chicago. The morning sun beat down on the crowds of people standing out in front of the old Criminal Courts building, and the air inside Chief Justice John R. Caverly’s courtroom was as thick as a steam bath and smelled like a locker room. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb looked cool as cucumbers according to press reports, as the proceedings of the sensational Bobby Franks murder got underway in the fortress-like building. No trial in the complex’s 30-year history had ever captured such public notice, even though the site on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Hubbard Street had had its fair share of history making events prior to the summer of 1924.
[Courthouse Place – Cook County Criminal Courts Building, 54 W. Hubbard Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In the spring of 1850 residents on the north side of the Chicago River began clammering for a market hall of their own. The city had built a market hall south of the main branch of the river, but with only the Rush Street bridge traversing the waterway, it was hard to get to. The north siders made enough of a fuss that in October the Council Committee on Markets began to investigate potential sites, and in March 1851 purchased nearly the entire block bounded by Dearborn Avenue, Illinois, Clark and Michigan (eventually Hubbard) Streets as the location for the new North Market Hall. The two-story building combined a market at ground level with a meeting hall above where Frederick A. Douglass was cheered as he addressed an overflow crowd in 1853, and where Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas was vigorously booed and pelted with produce as he addressed a packed house on the merits of the Kansas Nebraska Act in September 1854. Then, in 1871, North Market Hall was one of the over 17,000 buildings destroyed by the Great Fire’s fury.
[Courthouse Place – Cook County Criminal Courts Building, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In the rebuilding effort that followed, the city decided to allow Cook County to build a new criminal courts building and jail on the market hall site, and architects Armstrong and Egan designed a handsome three-story stone courthouse fronting Michigan Street, with a brick jail house behind it along Illinois. In the summer of 1886 – 24-years before the Franks sensation – streets around the courthouse were jammed with onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of the Haymarket Eight, charged with murder after a bomb was thrown into a crowd on May 4, 1886 resulting in the deaths of seven policeman and at least four onlookers. A year later crowds gathered once again around the county complex when four of the eight men were hung in the jail’s basement gallows. Just as sensational, but a little less volatile, was the 1890 census report that edged Cook County toward the 2 million mark, with nearly 90% of those counted residing within the city of Chicago. The time had come to build a larger court and jail facility, so the County Board voted to fund the construction of a project to be designed by County architect Otto H. Matz.
[Courthouse Place – Cook County Criminal Courts Building, City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Matz hadn’t been in position very long when the commission came his way. The Berlin native had come to Chicago from Germany in 1853, and almost immediately secured a position as the in house architect for the nascent Illinois Central Railroad. Matz set to work designing a passenger station and freight depot that sat at the northern edge of the road’s massive rail yard at the River and Lake Michigan, and a number of stations and hotels that lined the Central’s Chicago Branch and Charter Line. He served as the Chicago Public School architect from 1869 to 1871, and won the $5,000 prize for designing a new City Hall and Courthouse complex in 1873 – but the scheme was never built. Matz’s name entered Chicago’s post-fire, pop-culture consciousness when a building he had designed survived the inferno almost entirely intact. His “fireproof” Nixon Building on the northeast corner of La Salle and Monroe Streets, was nearing completion that October, and because of his use of masonry, iron and insulating plaster, the building seemed to withstand the intense heat. It was however missing most of its wood flooring and trim which may have helped in the structure’s survival. Matz was heralded as a genius when the project was ready for occupancy just four weeks after the fire had burned its way through town.
[Courthouse Place – Cook County Criminal Courts Building, River North Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Matz’s new six-story criminal courts building would house courtrooms on the upper floors with 18-foot high ceilings, judge’s chambers, jury rooms, the state’s attorney’s office, and a press room. Almost four years to the day that Clarence Darrow had argued against the death penalty for his clients Leopold and Loeb in Judge Caverly’s courtroom, Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur offered a hilarious send-up and insiders peek of the goings-on in the court’s press room when their play “The Front Page” opened in New York on August 14, 1928. By which time the court and the jail were packing it up and relocating to a new facility at California Avenue and 26th Street on the city’s near southwest side. The old courthouse was given over to the city’s Department of Health and the jail was demolished in 1936. By the mid-80s, as the city consolidated office space into the former Kraft Building on Grand Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, Matz’s sturdy structure was put up for sale and developer Albert Friedman purchased and renovated the National Register and City of Chicago landmark. Judge Caverly’s courtroom and the press room now serve as offices for law firms and advertising agencies.