One hundred years later, the Vermilion County Courthouse stands as a memorial to one of the slickest legal maneuvers ever pulled off by local politicians.
The five-story building at Vermilion and Main streets took two years to build and cost county taxpayers $281,455.25. It was dedicated on Jan. 7, 1914.
“People of all ages and every condition of life availed themselves of the opportunity to go through Vermilion County’s temple of justice,” The Commercial-News reported on opening day. “Visitors gave expression to their pleasure by drawing liberally on their stock of adjectives and exclamation points. The adjectives ran all the way from ‘nice’ of the demure maiden to ‘magnificent’ of her brusque father.”
The architects were Lewis & Stuebe and the contractor was Magnus Yeager & Son, both of Danville. For 100 years, it has known an unending pageant of murderers, thieves, judges, lawyers, clerks, cops, reporters and regular folk.
It’s a unique, imposing, L-shaped structure. It has pilasters, porticoes, stained glass, oak, marble, and exterior walls of cut limestone. It would cost millions of dollars to duplicate today.
No other Vermilion County Courthouse stood even 50 years.
Court was first held in homes and in a log building on Main Street. The first “permanent” courthouse was about 40 feet square, and made of brick. Lincoln knew it well. Built in 1832, it burned in 1872.
The second courthouse, built in 1876, was the first to assume an “L” shape. Most county courthouses sit in the center of a courthouse square, but Vermilion County courthouses always have stood on the L-shaped county-owned lot at the northeast corner.
That courthouse cost $105,000, and it was beautiful: three stories, very Victorian, red brick with white limestone trim. “It was a good building, and the people thought when it was completed that they would not have to build another courthouse for 100 years, at least,” The Commercial-News reported in 1914.
But the county’s population boomed in the late 1800s as mining, railroading and other industries took off. Some new county offices were created by legislative order. By 1911, the courthouse — only 35 years old — was too small.
Which brings us to an audacious move by the Vermilion County Board of Supervisors. Its members concluded that the public would never support a tax referendum needed to build a new courthouse.
Just then, a light bulb went off in the skull of Supervisor Tom Woolverton, of Grant Township.
He “evolved the brilliant scheme of repairing the old courthouse by adding another story or two to it,” The Commercial-News reported. “His plan was adopted by the board, but members put the words ‘remodel’ along with ‘repair’ and the present superb structure is the result.”
So, without a tax referendum, the 1876 courthouse was demolished … then its cornerstone was moved to the back alley … then the cornerstone was “remodeled” it into a brand-new courthouse. It was devious, but legal.
Here’s wishing a happy 100th birthday to Vermilion County’s “temple of justice”!
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.