The county courthouse is an American tradition that serves many roles: center of government, seat of justice and symbol of our representative democracy. Over the past century and a half, DuPage County has shared in this tradition, taking great pride in its courthouses as well as the system of justice housed within their walls.
THE FIRST COURTHOUSE
On February 9, 1839, the Illinois General Assembly passed an enabling act creating the County of DuPage out of the westernmost section of what was then Cook County.
Naperville, DuPage’s oldest community, was selected to serve as the county’s first seat of government. The village’s location on the well traveled road between the port of Chicago and the lead mines at Galena had made it the largest community in the county, boasting four stores, a tavern, a sawmill and 250 inhabitants. By comparison, Chicago had a population of 5,000, including 5 ministers, 23 doctors and 41 lawyers.
The citizens of Naperville quickly set about planning a courthouse befitting the new county. Bailey Hobson, one of DuPage County’s first settlers, was charged with the task of obtaining title from the appropriate government officials for a public square on which the courthouse would be erected. A site along Washington Street was selected and plans for the construction of a two-story frame building were begun. The new courthouse was constructed at a cost of $5,000, paid for by a subscription from the citizens of Naperville.
THE SECOND COURTHOUSE
In 1848 the Chicago and Galena Railroad obtained a right of way across DuPage County. The railroad was so pleased with the terms it received that it built a train station in what is today Wheaton’s business district, and the town quickly became a major stop on the line.
Wheaton’s growing population and central location prompted citizens of the town to launch an effort to move the county seat from Naperville to their own community. A rivalry between the two towns began to take shape when in 1857 the state legislature authorized an election to be held to decide the question of whether the county seat should be relocated to Wheaton. When the ballots were counted, Naperville had retained the county seat by a vote of 1,542 to 762. However, this was not the end of the controversy, as the issue again found its way onto the ballot in 1867.
On election day, animosity over the issue led to a rock-throwing incident between residents of the rivaling towns that left one man dead. This time, by a vote of 1,686 to 1,635, Wheaton was selected to be the new county seat.
The citizens of Wheaton wasted no time in beginning construction of a new courthouse. Warren Wheaton donated land for a new public square, and Adin Childs won the contract for construction of the two-story frame building with provisions for a courtroom, county offices and a jail. The entire building was built and furnished at a cost of $20,000, paid for by Wheaton residents through a private subscription.
With the foundation for the new courthouse in place, Naperville residents who contested the election convinced a Joliet judge to issue an injunction restraining further transactions of county business at Wheaton until the issue could be decided by the Illinois legislature.
This order was almost immediately followed by an injunction issued by a judge in Cairo, Illinois, restraining the officers of DuPage County from holding any County Board meetings at Naperville.
During this controversy, construction on the Wheaton courthouse continued, with the dedication of the new building set for July 4, 1868. On July 22nd, the first meeting of the Board of Supervisors in the new Wheaton courthouse was held with half the members of the board in attendance. At that meeting the county officials were ordered to go to Naperville and remove all the county records to the new courthouse at Wheaton.
Two days later a delegation appeared at the Naperville courthouse and removed the Judge’s docket, the marriage license book and the clerk’s book. After this incident, the residents of Naperville refused to surrender the remaining county records and guards were posted at the courthouse.
With half the county records and half the Board of Supervisors meeting at either courthouse, county government came to a grinding halt, as taxes went uncollected and county business went unattended. After several months, a group of Wheaton citizens decided upon a course of action to end the standoff.
One dark evening in December, a group of more than 100 Wheatonions with some two dozen wagons slipped into Naperville during the middle of the night. A sympathetic courthouse employee had left a window open in the recorder’s office located a few yards south of the courthouse. The group began carrying away county books and records to the awaiting wagons, detaining several Naperville citizens who had been assigned to stand guard.
Mrs. Hiriam Cody, the wife of the county judge, saw the raiders and alerted her husband, who immediately ran to the Congregational Church and began ringing the bell. The sleepy citizenry of Naperville turned out and a short chase ensued. During the melee the raiders abandoned several books of deeds, Volumes 15-21, in the street. The Naperville residents quickly recovered the books, temporarily hiding them in the roof of a neighboring building. These books were eventually placed in the vault of the Cook County Recorder in Chicago for "safe-keeping". However, these so-called "lost records" were believed to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Shortly after the "midnight raid", the Illinois legislature sided with Wheaton and granted a deed to the courthouse along with four acres of land for a public square. The DuPage County Board of Supervisors quickly passed a resolution dedicating the Naperville courthouse and square as a public park. The courthouse at Naperville was eventually sold at auction and demolished in 1875.
THE THIRD COURTHOUSE
In the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, DuPage County experienced a tremendous growth in population and the Wheaton courthouse started to become crowded. This situation prompted the County Board of Supervisors to appoint a building committee to explore the feasibility of a new courthouse.
In the spring of 1896, the committee traveled through the state visiting various county courthouses. The committee members were so impressed by the new Mercer County facility that they recommended that the entire County Board come to the City of Aledo to view the building. After a careful inspection, the Board agreed with the committee’s recommendation and plans were made to construct a similar building on the site of the old Wheaton courthouse.
In July of 1896, architect M. E. Bell finalized plans for the new courthouse to be constructed of red granite, brick and terra cotta. The building was crowned with a clock tower some six stories above the street, making it the tallest building in the county. The plans called for the first floor to be occupied by officers of the County Board of Supervisors, County Surveyor, Master in Chancery and vaults for the county records. The second floor contained a courtroom, private chambers for the county’s two judges, as well as offices for the Clerk of the Court and State’s Attorney. The third floor also contained a courtroom along with the law library, grand jury room and bailiff’s room.
Charles A. Moses of Chicago was awarded the contract to construct the building at an estimated cost of $74,802.00. Much to his credit, Mr. Moses completed the building, including a separate boiler-house and connecting tunnel, which were not included in the original plans, for a total expenditure of $69,390.00, well under the architect’s estimated cost.
This new courthouse would serve the county well into the next century. It was not until 1938 that a white stone annex was constructed to house the State’s Attorney’s Office.
It was the "Baby Boom" after the Second World War that prompted the next expansion of the courthouse. The courthouse addition was begun in 1952, adding two floors and connecting the courthouse with the new county jail.
During this period, DuPage County was part of the 16th Judicial Circuit that included Kane, DeKalb and Kendall Counties. In 1957, the state legislature separated DuPage County from the 16th Circuit and created the 18th Judicial Circuit. DuPage County became the second county in the state to constitute its own judicial circuit.
Between 1960 and 1980 the population of DuPage County doubled to 642,800 people and its importance as a residential and commercial center also increased as many businesses and corporate offices located here. During that same period the number of annual case filings tripled, making the 18th Judicial Circuit the second largest court system in Illinois.
This unprecedented growth soon had the old courthouse bulging at the seams, and it became necessary to seek new facilities for the expanding county departments. The County Board approved a plan to construct a new county office complex to accommodate the non-court operations on County Farm Road.
The courthouse now truly lived up to its name and it was used exclusively for operations of the 18th Judicial Circuit. In 1978 the courthouse building was placed on the list of national historic landmarks.
THE DUPAGE COUNTY JUDICIAL OFFICE FACILITY - 1990 TO DATE
On the 90th anniversary of the courthouse it became apparent that the old court facility would no longer be adequate to handle the needs of the second largest court system in Illinois. The Judges of the 18th Judicial Circuit, under the leadership of the then Chief Judge Carl F. J. Henninger, began to work together with the DuPage County Board on a plan for a new 300,000 square foot Judicial Office Facility to be located at the DuPage County Complex on County Farm Road to be built at a cost of $52.5 million.
On November 2, 1990, Chief Judge Anthony M. Peccarelli officially dedicated the new DuPage County Judicial Center with occupancy set for July 15, 1991. However, shortly after its official opening, users of the new Judicial Office Facility began experiencing various symptoms associated with "sick building syndrome". This situation prompted a closing of the building until an evaluation and renovations could be performed. After being closed for nearly a year, the Judicial Office Facility was reopened.
As we approach the millennium, again the issue of overcrowding has prompted calls for a new annex to the Judicial Office Facility to accommodate the growth needs of one of the largest counties in the nation. Whatever the future brings, one thing which will remain constant is that the courthouse will continue to serve as a working symbol of our justice system.
The author wishes to thank Dan Amati and the DuPage Historical Museum for providing the photographs.
John Lapinski is the Chief of the Administration Bureau for the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office. John previously served as Associate Director for the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. He is a graduate of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law where he serves as as Adjunct Professor.