Courthouse history goes back to 1899

PARKERSBURG – When the public was permitted for the first time inside the completed Wood County Courthouse in 1901 the artistry of the edifice’s interior, including frescos that adorned the walls, was lauded by all.

The courthouse cornerstone was laid on Oct. 5, 1899. The building, which ended up costing about $200,000 for construction and furnishings, took about two years to complete. Original estimates had the cost at about $89,000.

Headlines from the July 27, 1901 edition of The Parkersburg Sentinel announced the much-anticipated completion of the county building, proclaiming it, “One of the Handsomest Structures in the State.” Crowds reportedly throned through the building into the evening hours to get a sneak peek.

“All of the corridors have been fitted with wainscoating of the best Tennessee Marble, which extends up the walls to a distance of eight feet,” according to reports from the Parkersburg papers at the time. “There is no denying the building is handsome, especially within. The attractiveness within is largely due to the beautiful and harmonious decorating. This part of the work was done by Mr. H.C. Schubert of Cleveland, and is no doubt the finest architectural decorating in the city,” according to the newspaper accounts.

“The rotunda on the second floor is perhaps the prettiest spot in the entire building. It is about 30 feet wide by 50 feet long and is lighted from an immense dome of art glass in which are placed 100 incandescent lights,” according to the newspaper reports. “On the walls of the rotunda and in the rooms of the criminal and circuit courts are large figures representative of Law, Liberty and Justice, which have attracted considerable attention. Unfortunately, the figure in the court rooms have been partially covered up by the high rostrums, but this defect will be remedied in the near future,” according to a July 27, 1901 account in The Parkersburg Sentinel.

Another newspaper account from the day describes where the four main entrance halls meet, the rotunda is “exceptionally beautiful.” The dome was described being of “monumental stained glass, with a light yellow and green color scheme of attractive design, which sheds a soft radiance through the main hallways during the day.”

The frescos inside the courthouse were done by Schubert who had studios at the time in Cleveland, Ohio. The newspaper reported the courthouse was the first he’d done in West Virginia.

Fresco is a technique of mural painting on freshly laid lime plaster. Water is used for the pigment and as the plaster sets, the painting becomes part of the wall. The most famous frescos are Michelangelo’s paintings on the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Fresco comes from the Italian word fresco meaning cool or fresh.

Another July 1901 news article describes a “handsome painting” of a woman holding aloft the torch of justice, while at her feet lie the broken shackles of tyranny.”

Another account describes a fresco in a circuit courtroom as a “large figure back of the judge’s bench representing Moses, the first great judge and law giver. The idea was submitted to the county commissioners by Mr. Schubert and after some hesitancy was adopted by them,” according to the newspaper reports.

The newspaper articles describe a fresco of “a beautiful female figure seated in a bank of clouds, while three cupids one on each side and one just below, offering her the code of laws, the hoodwink to clear-sighted justice and the balances of equality before the law. The goddess is ignoring the two former, but is leaning downward with extended hand for the scales in which justice is be weighed,” according to the newspaper article. “The picture is modern in its originality and forms probably the handsomest decoration in the entire building.”

Wood County Historic and Preservation Society president Bob Enoch said after hearing about the frescos, he did some research and was able to find the old newspaper stories and even came across what is probably the only photograph of H.C. Schubert.

“The historical society would be interested in any information, especially photos of the interior of the courthouse, including the frescos, but really anything prior to the 1980s renovations,” Enoch said. “Something that beautiful should not be forgotten.” Enoch referred anyone who might have information or photos of the courthouse interior to the county administrator’s office on the second floor of the courthouse.

During the 1980s the courthouse underwent renovations. The courtrooms that were housed on the third floor were removed to the Shaver Judicial Annex.

Local attorney Robert Black, son of the late Wood County Circuit Court Judge Donald Black who was a longtime circuit court judge, author and local historian, recalled some of the beautiful frescos that were in his father’s courtroom back in the 1960s.

“My recollection is that there was a big fresco behind the judge’s bench, I think it was a statute of the Lady of Justice. There was something else, but I can’t recall now what it was,” he said.

The original stained glass remains on the doors of the former courtroom, which now serves as part of the assessor’s offices.

Today the county has offices in several buildings including the courthouse, Judicial Annex, a maintenance/former law enforcement building, the Judge Black Courthouse Annex (former Towne Square) and the most recently completed Wood County Justice Center. The courthouse is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.