Don’t pave paradise to put up parking lotPublished 2:52pm Friday, March 8, 2013
As Cass County studies what to do with its mothballed 1899 courthouse, we root for some use being found for it rather than concluding it needs to be demolished.
As the Law and Courts Building bears down on its 10th anniversary this summer, Cass County lost its second courthouse, which was a “Gem,” and didn’t Dowagiac wish belatedly Beckwith Theatre could have been rescued from the wrecking ball?
The second courthouse, approved in 1839 and completed in 1841, was moved off the site a block west in 1898. It found a second life down the hill as the Gem Theater, the movie house which introduced “talkies” to the county.
It operated until about 1960 and was razed in 1968.
That elegant edifice closely resembled the one in Berrien Springs. One memorable feature was a pair of staircases climbing from street level to the second-story courtroom.
The limestone-veneered courthouse in question, its cornerstone set in a Masonic ceremony on Oct. 5, 1898, was made greener by terraces added after removal of the 1958 jail.
Largely built in 1899, it did not become fully occupied until October 1900. It was remodeled and the brick annex added in 1975-76. At that time its gorgeous central staircase was lost, along with much interior architectural detail in the name of “adaptive re-use.”
The clock tower received attention in 1991.
Organized in 1829, Cass County split off from a large area called Lenawee County, which is why Penn Township has a Lenawee Street.
The county originally consisted of four townships — not 15 — Pokagon, Penn, LaGrange and Ontwa.
The village of Geneva, east of Cassopolis where Council on Aging’s Edward Lowe Center stands, was for a time envisioned as the seat of county government instead of Cassopolis.
The first courthouse, a wooden structure, 24 feet by 34 feet, cost $450 in 1835. It consisted of just three rooms, so within four years the county needed something larger. The $6,000 contract for the 1841 courthouse specified a two-story structure 46 feet wide, 54 feet long and 24 feet high from sills to eaves. It was to contain a brick safe, 16 by 17 feet, with walls 18 inches thick. By 1860, the brick Masonic Temple (The Fort) across the street was built. That building was used until the 1899 courthouse was completed.
Planning for the 1899 courthouse began in 1897 — the year the Dowagiac Daily News was established.
The Board of Supervisors in January 1898 adopted a resolution calling for construction of a new courthouse at a cost not to exceed $40,000, including furnishings, plumbing and steam heat.