A Monument on the Hill
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Washington County turned its attention to rebuilding and westward expansion. Lumber prospects in the St. Croix Valley promised wealth and success for Washington County. In 1867, ground was broken for a new courthouse high on the bluff overlooking the bustling commerce of downtown Stillwater and the St. Croix River.
Designed by Augustus Knight of St. Paul, the courthouse favored the Italianate style of architecture, with strong Greek Revival influences. The limestone foundation and brick facade were capped with an imposing dome, cupola and flagpole, which soared as a landmark above the river city. The building was designed with a small two-story jail and a Sheriff's residence as part of the complex. Jutting skyward were 11 chimneys, necessities for the pot-bellied stoves that provided heat for the building.
The building was completed in 1870 and served as the administrative and judicial center of the county for more than a century.
In 1900, the original jail was replaced with a two-story jail addition on the rear of the building. The main floor of the old jail became the Sheriff's office and the second floor jail cells were retained for female prisoners.
By 1962, the county had outgrown the building and the Sheriff's residence was converted into the Sheriff's Office, forcing the Sheriff and his family to move elsewhere. The large courtroom had been divided into a smaller courtroom and offices. There were even offices in the dank, dark basement of the building.
During this time, the county considered razing the courthouse to build a new one on this site. Ultimately, the new Government Center was built a mile south of the courthouse.
In 1971, the Historic Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest standing courthouse in Minnesota.
The county moved out of the structure to the new Government Center in 1975 and plans were underway for an adaptive re-use of the old building.
Before the building could find a new niche in its long and useful life, the rooms literally had to be shoveled out and the building made weatherproof with a new roof and snow catchers. As the building was restored and made ADA compliant, a new vision for this architectural gem was developed which included history-related exhibits and activities.
Much of the needed restoration has been completed during the past 30 years with the support of Washington County, the Minnesota Historical Society, local foundation grants, fundraising activities, and donations from individuals, organizations and businesses.
Volunteers were an integral part of the restoration of this site and they continue to be an important part of the courthouse operation.
The Historic Courthouse is now part of the Washington County Parks Division.