Woodbury County Court House: Sioux City, Iowa

I happened to go to the Woodbury County Court House in July of 2017. It was even more beautiful than I thought it would be.

This decal graces some of the exterior doors.

The Douglas Street entrance.

The 7th Street entrance.

I think they should rethink the color used to hold the figures together. A white or buff color would be better.

The alley side or east side of the building.

There are two buffalo on the alley side.

This is the south side of the building which faces the Sioux City city hall.

This “city hall” side still has amazing detail even though it lacks any human sculpture.

I’m unsure what the “H” stands for unless it’s a “W” then it would be Woodbury.

The cornerstone is located at the corner of 7th and Douglas streets on the Douglas street side.

This is part of the patriotic mural on the east side in the interior.

This clock is in the center of the patriotic mural and over a staircase.

This is the final part of the patriotic mural.

This is the mural on the west side of the building. It deals with justice.

The dome.

It’s a drinking fountain/fishbowl.

There is a lot more terra cotta upstairs.

You can see the staircase to the second floor behind this planter.

These benches are used throughout the building.

The place drips with all this terra cotta.

One of the courtrooms on the second floor.

The original elevator isn’t used anymore. There are modern elevators on both sides of this elevator.

We had access to most of the building and went to every floor. This is the view as you get off the elevator on the seventh floor.

The view from the window.

In the original entrance (on Douglas Street) hangs this plaque.

According to the sanctioned brochure that’s given out at the court house’s security check-point, The Woodbury County Court House is linked to the midwestern prairie style that began with Louis Sullivan in the 1890s and carried forward by Frank Lloyd Wright in the first two decades of the 20th Century. I can see how that train of thought might apply to the main structure; the first two floors — but the six-story tower seems to work against the whole prairie style aesthetic. Regardless, the architect selected for the court house project was local Sioux City architect William LeBarth Steele who submitted an ornate gothic design, which landed him the job, but after obtaining the commission he had second thoughts, tossed the gothic proposal, and enlisted the help of former co-workers William Purcell and George Elmslie who operated an architectural firm in Minneapolis.

The team’s distribution of duties were stated as follows in Western Architect: Steele who was a University of Illinois graduate in architecture, a member of the American Institute of Architects, and had worked for Louis Sullivan as a draftsman was to be the executive head and Elmslie was put in charge of design and planning. Two other men brought in for the job were Paul D. Cook as the structural engineer and B.A. Broom as the mechanical engineer.

The plan the men came up with over the spring, summer and fall of 2015 involved offices for government officials (those most visited by the public) in the four corners of the first floor, courtrooms on the second floor, and more offices for departments, department heads, clerks, and other elected officials in the six “tower” floors. A preliminary proposal of this plan was presented to the Board of Supervisors early in the year on March 23, 1915, and the Board gave their go-ahead for the work that was done over the following months by “a large force of draftsmen.” It was after the work had been completed that the attacks against the plan began at public meetings (when the proposal was discussed) and then fanned by a local press that was intent on selling papers. It was considered too controversial for many civic leaders in the community who referred to it as an “architectural experiment.” Others believed it to be too “radical” for Sioux City, Iowa. Some citizens wanted a more typical court house constructed of a tried and true muscular material, such as granite or stone, instead of Roman Brick which is different from normal brick in size and look and while the local bar association objected to the small size of the courtrooms the Sioux City trade unions endorsed the design because they understood the number of trades that would be required for its construction and the amount of work that would result from the undertaking of the enormous job.

All this began because Woodbury county had outgrown their Second Empire 1878 court house which hadn’t been built for a fast-growing community of 80,000 in mind which Woodbury county was in 1914. So, in June of that year a bond referendum was put before voters which at this early date would translate as: “voters” = men and, most likely, only white men. Fortunately, for the progress of architecture, the forward-thinking men of Woodbury county passed the referendum and provided the initial $500,000 for a new court house.

In December of 1915 the matter to proceed or not with construction was settled when the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to accept the design. According to Western Architect the reason the opposition failed was due to the fact that they lacked a “sound and convincing argument” for their opposition. “Something else” wasn’t a good enough reason. The construction contract was awarded to the Minneapolis firm of Splady, Albee, and Smith in February of 1916 and the cornerstone was laid on July 10, 1916. E. C. Copeland, the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, oversaw the event. The final cost of the building was $825,641.43 and it was completed on March 1, 1918.

On the exterior Douglas Street side of the building the huge central figure, with the big hands, big feet, and very long beard, symbolizes the spirit of the law. The freize of figures that extends outward from him, on both sides, is a representation of the community. Above them is the text: “Justice and Peace Have Met Together — Truth Hath Sprung Out of The Earth.” Western Architect described the huge figure of Law as “aged and slumbrous but strong armed and mighty.” Standing underneath the figure and looking up at him it’s difficult to disagree with that assessment.

Alfonso Iannelli was the sculptor of the figures on the building. He’s the same man who did the sprites at Midway Gardens for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1914. Western Architect said of the sculpture, “We are impressed by the splendid spiritual quality of his work. It is worked out with fine dignity and restraint. It is not applied sculpture. It is organic and belongs in very truth to this building and nowhere else. What higher praise can be given to architectural sculpture?”

On the other street facing side, 7th Street, are figures representing a man and a woman who have their backs to each other. The woman holds a baby and this is, according to various sources, a depiction of an idealized family unit circa 1918 though visually it reads as a father who has turned his back on his wife and child. Above them are the words: “Justice and Humanity.” The back of the building, which faces an alley, holds a surprise under its fire escape for there are sculptural bison’s heads which gaze down upon the alley and the building’s small, shallow loading dock. According to the blueprints this also serves as the entrance for prisoners. The south side of the building, which is separated from Sioux City’s city hall by a single row of parking spaces and driveway, lacks any awe inspiring monumental sculpture and as a result is a “let down” as one walks around the building in discovery but I suspect Steele and company were deliberately exhibiting restraint and designing on a less flashy scale. Still, the plain city hall side has many of the decorative elements that the street facing sides have: ornate terra cotta, stained glass, and intricate metal work.

The first two-stories of the court house are 57 feet tall. To the top of the building’s tower it’s 152 feet and the tower is graced, near its pinnacle, by another Iannelli sculpture of a large eagle that looks to the west with outstretched wings.

John Warner North who lived from 1876 to 1934 was responsible for the murals which have a sparseness about them that give them a Japanese quality. North stated that the design of the murals evolved slowly and he changed them repeatedly. It wasn’t the subject matter that changed though but rather the “arrangement of spaces and color.”

In the court house’s interior, above the Douglas Street entrance, is a mural which deals with the purpose of the building itself: the courtroom. Yet, in John Warner North’s (though he’s referred to as John W. Norton in Western Architect) depiction of justice, Justice, who stands on the right near the bottom, is not blindfolded but open-eyed and she carries a human heart in her hand. On the south wall, is a depiction of contented farm workers toiling earnestly. On the east wall is a split patriotic mural that endorses America’s commitment to World War I with the text: “Our liberties we prize, our rights we will maintain.” The final mural, on the north wall, depicts the evolution of time with an old woman representing the past, a youthful couple depicting the present, and adolescent boys looking at a rising metropolis as the future.

Norton painted the murals in his studio in Lockport, Illinois and they were hung in the court house in 1919. In 1973 the court house was placed on the National Historic Register, and in 1996 it was designated a National Landmark which is reserved for structures which have a national significance.

Below are images from Western Architect from 1921.

That’s the mural that represents the passage of time on the left.

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Clausen, S. (1997). Woodbury County Court House.

Erickson-Puttmann, P., O’Kane, J. D., Townsend, L.W. & Zimmer, J. L. (n.d.). A statement in American architecture: Woodbury County Court House, Sioux City, Iowa.

Woodbury County Court House. (1921, February). Western Architect, 30(2), 13-20, plates 1-24.


Note: I have a book coming out in the latter half of 2018 from The History Press titled: The Architects Who Built Southern California. It will be 12 chapters with each chapter devoted to a different architect (or architectural firm) including: Harrison Albright, John Austin, Claud Beelman, Elmer Grey, Hudson & Munsell, A. C. Martin, Meyer & Holler, Julia Morgan, Morgan Walls & Clements, Parkinson & Parkinson, Alfred F. Rosenheim and Paul R. Williams.