Courthouse a Monument

Pieces of the Past column by Jim Reis

Any list of Northern Kentucky landmarks must include the Campbell County Courthouse. Its large central tower and four corner towers - no two of which are alike - make it stand out.

The history of the Newport courthouse dates to the early 1880s when a drive was begun to construct a new building. The courthouse at the time was located on the same site - land donated to Campbell County for government use by Newport founder James Taylor.

The old courthouse stood two stories tall and about 40 feet on each side. A spire and a bell topped the building, which cost about $3,300. A picture of the building from 1883 shows an adjoining building - similar in size, but minus the spire.

The drive to build a new Newport courthouse began in earnest on April 17, 1882, when the state legislature passed a resolution authorizing its construction at a cost not to exceed $50,000. The state also approved the formation of a courthouse commission to oversee operation of the new courthouse.

That was followed in March 1883 by a visit of courthouse commissioners to Cincinnati to meet with architect A. C. Nash.

A Kentucky State Journal newspaper account at the time said the commissioners ''have no definite plans of their own and will depend on (Nash's) judgement for the dimensions.''

''One of them stated that it might be 100 feet by 140 feet, two stories or three stories high.''

The Newport-based newspaper gave a more detailed account on March 28, 1883, reporting the building would have three entrances on the York Street side and one each on the Bellevue Street (now Fourth Street) and Southgate Street sides.

The building was to house county and city offices. City offices were to be on the right side of the building and county offices on the left.

On April 10, 1883, work to raze the old courthouse began.

Several people expressed sadness at seeing the old building come down. Among those was Judge F. A. Boyd, who told a reporter he had begun his career as an attorney in 1836 in the old courthouse.

By April 14, 1883, the Kentucky State Journal reported the old courthouse building had been leveled and ''its parts are strewn all over the yard.'' The courthouse commissioners hired the firm of Hugle and Eyer to auction off any salvageable materials.

Construction would not go smoothly. Even the exact location of the courthouse on the public square would trigger debate. Architect Nash suggested the building be located 125 feet back from York Street. The final compromise placed the building 110 feet from York Street.

By July 11, crews had started laying the foundation. The foundation was to include a layer of concrete and then large slabs of Indiana limestone with each slab being about 18 inches thick and 5 to 6 feet wide.

Excavation for the foundation unearthed two skeletons in what had been the cellar area of the old courthouse. Speculation was the bodies may have been buried there during the Civil War. The skeletons were reburied elsewhere.

The foundation work was completed in early September and the brick masons started their work by mid-September. Building completion was expected in about a year.

By Oct. 13, 1883, work had progressed to the second floor. The Kentucky State Journal reported second-floor joists were in place and that second-story windows were being installed. The writer added the courthouse ''is going to add very largely to the appearance of the city.''

By late spring 1884, however, the project was behind schedule. A major factor was the Ohio River flood of February 1884. The second worst flood ever in Northern Kentucky - surpassed only by the 79.99 feet of 1937 - the water reached 71.1 feet. Thousands were left homeless and every available person in Newport was needed for rescue and relief efforts.

To complicate matters further, a sawmill that provided lumber for the project burned in early May 1884, causing a disruption in supplies as the courthouse job had to compete with other construction projects going on that spring. The Kentucky State Journal predicted the courthouse would not be completed on schedule.

Despite the setbacks, by September the courthouse was nearing completion as originally scheduled. A Kentucky State Journal account on Sept. 6, 1884, said the contractor ''expects to turn over the keys of the house to them the latter part of next week.'' The writer added, ''The Court-house Commissioners are considering the subject of the opening of the house with some kind of public demonstration, but as yet have not come to any definite conclusion.''

By October Judge Boyd was holding trials in the new courthouse and the local Democratic and Republican parties were staging mass rallies on the lawn.

At the same time differences erupted between city and county officeholders as the courthouse commissioners announced they would only furnish fuel to heat the court and jury rooms. Those in other offices would have to provide their own coal for heating. A squabble also developed over the terms of the city's use of the building.

As a result of those problems, no public celebration was ever held to dedicate the new courthouse.

One of the last items sought for the new building was the bell from the former courthouse. The bell had been removed for safekeeping, but no one could recall where. A plea was issued for information on the bell. Two days later the bell was found under some hay at the Newport firehouse.

Among the features of the completed building were a four-sided central clock tower and four side towers - one on each corner of the building and each slightly different from the others.

As early as 1907, $13,500 worth of improvements were made to the building by Newport architect L. H. Wilson. Among his work was decorative tiling, electric lights and marble floors.

The interior also featured a large art-glass window showing Christ ascending. On the third floor is a skylight showing the seal of the commonwealth.

Additions on the north and south sides of the courthouse were made in 1911 and 1912. A memorial to Newport veterans of World War II was added to the front lawn after that war. Historical markers also were erected noting the courthouse and the area's first doctor, Thomas Hinde. The courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Courthouse survived threat of wrecking ball
While the Newport courthouse is now on the National Register of Historic Places, as recently as 30 years ago there was talk of tearing down the building.

That came as a committee and three subcommittees made up of elected officials and business leaders debated what to do with the courthouse, which was badly in need of repair. Entitled ''Project Urbarama,'' the report estimated it would cost $550,000 to remodel the courthouse and about $1 million to build a new one.

In September 1966 the courthouse study committee voted unanimously to support construction of a new courthouse. Among concerns about the old building were fire hazards, the lack of handicap accessibility and the need for more space. Momentum for a new courthouse seemed to be growing, but additional cost estimates - placed at $1.85 million, slowed the process.

About two years later leaders decided not to build a new courthouse, but instead to remodel the existing building. The decision came after the county, city, courts and courthouse commission could not reach an agreement on a new building.

The remodeling work would prove extensive and slow. A fire inspection in April 1976 identified 60 violations.

The building eventually was sandblasted, the inside renovated and an elevator installed. The courthouse commission held an open house on Dec. 2, 1984, to show off the remodeled building and to commemorate the building's 100th anniversary.

In 1995, the city of Newport moved its offices out of the courthouse and into a new city complex at 10th and Monmouth streets.

The same year the old Newport Jail building behind the courthouse was torn down to expand the courthouse parking lot.


The study of Northern Kentucky history is an avocation of staff writer Jim Reis, who covers suburban Kenton County for The Kentucky Post. Kentucky Post, July 26. 1999