The present Chippewa County Courthouse, built in 1877, stands on the site of Reverend Abel Bingham’s Baptist Mission. Reverend Bingham, sent to Sault Ste. Marie by the American Baptist Missionary Society in the late 1820’s, organized a temperance society and school on the lot where the Courthouse now stands. Bingham Avenue was named after him. In 1883, the Courthouse was one of three stone buildings in town. It is the only courthouse in the state of Michigan that has served its residents continuously since its construction.
The Courthouse has long been a meeting place, inside and out. In 1881, The Chippewa County Agricultural Society held an agricultural fair on the Courthouse lawn. This was eventually moved to the site that would become the Park School (today, the Malcolm Building). For a time, Le Sault Artists Guild held its annual Sault Summer Arts Festival on the Courthouse lawn. Each year, the community honors its veterans at monuments placed on the lawn. The Chippewa County Courthouse, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in October 1984, is an example of the Second Empire style of construction, common in the late 1800’s. Its architect, John Scott, was also responsible for a number of other buildings in the state, but the Courthouse was one of the first he designed.
The walls of the Courthouse are made of stone two feet thick, which makes for a very stolid structure. Two additions were built, one in 1904, and a smaller one in the 1930’s. Much care was given to match the style and looks of the original building, a rectangular structure that faced Maple Street. The facade of the building had three bays, with a central pavilion which projects beyond the others. Above it rises the clock and bell tower. Both the bell tower and the main building feature steep, sloping roofs, once covered in slate, now in asphalt shingles. A wrought iron widow’s walk once ran along the edge of the roof but was eventually removed.
One of the most impressive features of the Courthouse is the tower. Above the third floor, facing Maple Street, is a statue of Justice. The scales were restored by Leno Pianosi, professional woodcarver and Chairman of the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners. The statue is made of wood. Each bay of the tower has three tall windows. Above, a clock face is set into each of the four sides and the clock faces are lit at night. The 1904 addition was undertaken at a cost of $25,000 (more than the original structure, which cost $20,000 in 1877). While no major, obvious changes were made in the design, several subtle ones were made.
The new wing made a “T” shape of the Courthouse, extending south toward the Spruce Street end of the lot. At this time, the widow’s walk and slate shingles were removed, and the windows were changed, as well.
On the third floor, there were once only two triangular windows in the west and east ends. The 1904 addition included round sidelights. After the addition, there were four to each side of the building, in a vertical line with the lower window. A one-story addition was built in the 1930’s when the Treasurer’s office was expanded. The addition nestles in the southwest corner of the 1877 and 1904 sections. Doorways were placed on the north and south sides of the structure, and in the east face of the new section.
The main floor has office space and vaults. The old vaults still bear the markings they had when they were installed near the turn of the century. The hallways have wainscoting of chair rail height. Molded tin pressed into fancy designs covers many of the ceilings in the building. In the main courtroom, two columns bear ornate cast iron capitals, which lend elegance to the courtroom. An original skylight was taken out many years ago, but has been replaced with a modern structure to admit sunlight to the north-facing room. Off the courtroom, in the Circuit Judge’s chambers, a tiny fireplace, including a mantel and an ornate cast iron grill adorn the room. A roll-top desk dating back to the 1800’s has been refinished to its original state. The furniture in the main courtroom is the original furniture which has been refinished.
Ever since the Courthouse passed its 100th birthday, historian Reeta Freeborn and Leno Pianosi have been instrumental in developing guidelines for the restoration project. They led a decade-long fight against proposals to demolish the Courthouse and build a new one in its place. Using old photographs andd architectural plans, a detailed study of the building’s past was done in preparation for the restoration. Poley and Mitchell of Ann Arbor were hired as architects for the project. Through the combined efforts of the Regional Planning Commission, the Sault Economic Development Commission, State Senator Mitch Irwin, Representative Pat Gagliardi, and unanimous endorsement from the township in Chippewa County, a $200,000 Michigan Equity Grant was obtained to begin restoration of the Courthouse in December 1986.
The Hudson Foundation generously gave its support to the project by donating funds for the restoration of the Courthouse Law Library. The Sault Savings Bank and Central Savings Bank, along with citizens throughout the county, donated funds to restore the Courthouse. On April 6, 1987 the citizens of Chippewa County approved a tax levy of .75 mils for a period not to exceed eleven years for funding the renovation of the Courthouse. On September 27, 1988, the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners gave their approval for a $1,264,500 bid submitted by Champion Incorporated (Iron Mountain) to complete Phase II of the restoration/renovation project. Bonds were issued on October 11, 1988 to fund the project.
The project included bringing the Courthouse up to safety standards and making it barrier-free. Among the greatest changes was the addition of an elevator. The ceiling of the Courtroom was removed, exposing the opening of the original skylight. New oak doors replaced the old wooden doors. New windows were installed. The third flood, once used as a meeting room for the Board of Commissioners, but closed later for safety reasons, has been remodeled to house the Prosecuting Attorney’s offices. The second floor now includes two courtrooms, for Circuit Court and Probate Court and their offices. On the first floor, the Register of Deeds and County Clerk’s offices have been placed on the east side with a hallway and new safe.
The garden level floor was lowered to provide office space for the Equalization Department, Department of Corrections, Probate Court offices, Maintenance office, microfilm room, mechanical room, employees’ lounge, and public restrooms. Stairwells were constructed which provided access to the top floor. Landscaping was done around the courthouse. In addition, a flag pole was installed and the American flag is raised in the morning and lowered at night by means of an electric sensor.
The cornerstone of the Courthouse was found during the restoration work. The “time capsule” inside held bonds dated 1876, pictures, business cards of each elected officer, a bottle of champagne, a 1904 Evening News, a Marquette Mining Journal, a Lake Superior News, a Northern Tribune, the Sault Star, and coins.
Many people have memories stored in the Courthouse. They also have a building that is doing business for them that will likely do business for their children and their children’s children as well.
There are two statues on the front lawn of the Courthouse. The statue in this picture is “The Crane of the Sault.” The statue was gifted by Stella B. Osborn, wife of the only governor from the Upper Peninsula, Chase S. Osborn. The dedication of the statue was on June 8, 1985.
The statue depicts the Chippewa Legend of two young brothers who fled their wicked mother, who was pursuing them with the intent to kill them. When they reached the north shore of the St. Marys Rapids they were met by a crane, who, after hearing their story, carried them to the south shore of the rapids. The Crane then met the mother on the north shore and agreed to transport her to the other side. Instead, the crane dropped the mother in the rapids. When she hit the stones below, the mother’s skull cracked open and her brains became the whitefish that inhabit the rapids to this day. The crane adopted the boys and one of them remained in the area, married the daughter of the crane, and founded Bahweting.
Mrs. Stella B. Osborn commissioned the statue above as a personal and suitable memorial to Chase S. Osborn, and asked that it be placed in close proximity to the “Wolf of Rome”, since both statues were representations of the founding of ancient cities. She gave the monument to the citizens of the Sault area as a reminder that they are citizens of an ancient, city rich with a wonderful history and legacy.
The memorial stone on the lawn of the Courthouse is in memory of Reverend Abel Bingham, Baptist Missionary to the Indians and forerunner of the First Baptist Church founded in 1855 in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.