By: Matthew E. Becher
Originally published: August 31, 2006 in the Boone County Recorder
Most old buildings have stories to tell. Others, like the Old Boone County Courthouse, hold secrets that go untold for generations. Built for about $20,000 in 1889, the Old Courthouse was designed by the McDonald Brothers of Louisville, architects of many Kentucky courthouses in the 1880s. By varying details in size and construction, the McDonald Brothers could furnish designs for courthouses ranging in cost from $20,000 to nearly $80,000. The Old Boone County Courthouse is Renaissance Revival in style with a cruciform plan. An annex was added to the east elevation about 1960.
For a century, the earliest known photograph of the Old Courthouse was from the 1903 Historical Edition of the Boone County Recorder. In 2004, this c.1890 photograph of the courthouse surfaced. The startling photograph showed that the courthouse was originally topped by a massive clock tower rather than the small bell tower that we know today.
Following a careful review of the county court records from the 1890s, the forgotten secret of the clock tower was found. Just eight years after the new courthouse was completed, cracks began to appear in the building's load-bearing brick walls, which were literally spreading apart. In July, 1898, prominent Cincinnati architects Samuel Hannaford & Sons (designers of Cincinnati's City Hall and Music Hall) were hired to study the problem. County Court records from August, 1898, authorized a committee to “advertise & receive bids for removing the present [clock tower] and making the proposed changes & additions in & to the Court House roof according to the draft & plans as presented by Sam'l Hannaford & Sons.”
By early 1899 the clock tower had been replaced by the pyramid roof and bell tower that crown the building today. The massive wood truss system that supported the clock tower remains in the building, but everything above was cut out and replaced. The project cost nearly $700 but the reasons behind it are clear: the weight of the tower was destroying the building. A 1902 article in the Boone County Recorder notes that “the inside walls of the court house are shisters [sic] of the worst kind…the man who was paid to superintend the construction of the building either did not understand his business or was a fraud.”
We may never know whether poor design or shoddy brickwork led to the removal of the Old Courthouse's original clock tower. However, the stately building has stood at the heart of Boone County for 107 years since the clock tower was replaced. In 2003, the Boone County Fiscal Court funded a much-needed facelift for the building, which continues to house offices for the County Attorney, Child Support and Historic Preservation.