Ithaca Builds

Mapping, photos and information for Ithaca construction and development projects

Historic Structures: The Old Tompkins County Courthouse

January 2, 2014 // by Jason Henderson

The Old Tompkins County Courthouse (1854) – 121 East Court Street

Excerpt from Ithaca and its Past:

“The oldest Gothic Revival courthouse in the state, this building was the county’s second courthouse. Designed by John F. Maurice, a Union Springs architect, it replaced a small cheap wooden Greek Revival building that had been hastily built in 1818 to insure that Ithaca would become the county seat. Simeon DeWitt [arguably, the chief non-Native founder of Ithaca], who laid out the early village of Ithaca, gave the land to the county. When the new courthouse was built in 1932, the county exchanged the building for another lot. Public outcry forced the county to buy it back in 1934, however, and the building has housed county offices since then. The second-floor courtroom is especially handsome. The room originally featured an open timber (cathedral) roof, but an attic and the present ceiling were added during the Victorian period because of the high heating costs. The large brackets are part of the original roof trusses. The building was completely renovated in 1975-1976 as a Bicentennial project.”

Courtesy of The History Center in Tompkins County

The Tompkins County Planning Department occupies the ground-level floor, and the second-level houses the newly-renovated Legislature Chambers. The chambers were relocated from the County Courthouse Building next door, which had housed the Legislature until mid-June 2013 for about 80 years. The New York State Court System forced the move in order to make space for a Supreme Courtroom, and had previously committed to fund renovations for the relocation, which it later declined to fund. The new chamber renovations cost $1.2 million (originally pegged at $100,000 to $200,000), which sparked public criticism in the newspapers, and has provided some political ammunition for Congressman Tom Reed’s face-off with Tompkins County Legislature Chair, Martha Robertson (whom just stepped down in January, 2014) for the 23rd NY Congressional District‘s 2014 election, with a constituency spanning 11 counties, of which, Tompkins County was redistricted from the former 24th & 22nd in the start of 2012 and into the new 23rd (formerly the 29th).

The 2012 to mid-2013 renovations added new interior wood trim, four private offices, fresh paint, lighting, audiovisual equipment (meetings are streamed online via the Meeting Portal), seating, legislature desks and chairs, the bench, gallery seating, and new flooring. HOLT Architects (the renovation designers) has some nice images here. The contractors for the project were McPherson Builders, Climate Control Technologies, and Richardson Brothers Electrical.






The photo above is part of a 1930s Watercolor Map by Walter Glenn Norris (1895-1969), a painter, author, Tompkins County Clerk, and Tompkins County’s first appointed Historian (the work is on display in the first level DeWitt-side entrance foyer of the Old Courthouse). He painted many wonderful watercolors of Central New York, and authored three history books: Early Explorers and Travelers in Tompkins County (1961), Old Indian Trails in Tompkins County (1969), and The Origin of Place Names in Tompkins County (1951). Gosh, if only it cost $415k to build all that today..