At the end of my previous post about the construction of the first Winnebago County courthouse, I briefly mentioned the attempt to save the structure. This venture never worked out, and the original building that stood for 100 years was dismantled. I thought it was important to tell a bit of the story of how a local organization, the organization that I am now the vice president of, attempted to preserve this landmark.
In 1938, the citizens of Winnebago County had just erected a new “million dollar” courthouse on the corner of Algoma Boulevard and what was then called Jackson Drive. The courthouse prior to this stood on the old county grounds between Otter and Ceape streets. As the move from old building to new took place, something needed to be done with the old property. The County Board voted 31 to 10 in favor to accept an offer from the City of Oshkosh to purchase the land and buildings for $8,000. A year later the county’s second courthouse was razed.(1)
A few blocks away, the original courthouse built sometime around 1849 was also standing. Nearly 100 years later it was used as a warehouse by the Marquart Millwork Company on Ceape Street. Around 1944, the Winnebago Historical and Archeological Society considered the idea of saving the structure. The building was in poor shape and deemed a fire hazard. The society did not want to lose this historic building, so mill owners gave the building to the organization. In 1947, the building was successfully moved off the mill site and relocated to the original courthouse grounds owned by the city. The historical society was assisted by the county board and the city in moving the structure. The local newspaper expressed the historical society intentions to repair and preserve the old courthouse:
Designation of the original courthouse as an historical shrine will await repairs and improvements to the structure. An early fall program is contemplated by the Winnebago County Archeological Society (sic) at which time dedication exercises will be conducted in a public ceremony. ( July 10, 1947, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern)
An idea was proposed to have the County Board appropriate $5,000 towards the restoration. After all, it was connected to the county and would be a point of historical interest for visitors. Unfortunately, a majority vote was not reached and the motion failed.One of the opponents to funding the restoration said that the city should help pay for the cost of repairs.(3)
Suddenly the situation began to deteriorate. Herbert Wenzlaff, an alderman of the Eight Ward, proposed the building be demolished. The society was not making progress on the restoration, and the city grew impatient. Time and money were hindering the progress of the restoration.(4)
The society was desperately seeking donations to save the building. They asked that citizens help fund the preservation the same way it had been built–through public donations. By March 1949, the common council voted that the historical society must have the courthouse moved or it would be demolished. The council stated that the historical society had “failed and neglected to meet the terms and conditions of the lease and the building is still in an unsightly condition.” The society was given 30 more days to do something with the old building. (5)
After the 30-day delay, nothing was done to move or improve the building. Despite this, the historical society once again came to the council in April 1949 and said they had secured a building contractor that would complete the restoration in about five weeks. The society asked for a 90-day extension to do so, which the council rejected. In May 1949, the society came back again asking for only a 60-day extension and that the exterior would be improved in that time. Again, the common council rejected the proposal and stuck to its original order to remove or dismantle the building.(6)
On May 10, 1949, the city began dismantling the courthouse board by board and placed the pieces in storage. I am sure that shortly thereafter the materials were disposed of. The land on which the building sat was converted into city parking spaces. I am not sure why the historical society did not just move the building, which the council said they could do. Instead, Winnebago’s first courthouse was lost to history.(7)
It is a shame that this courthouse was unable to be saved. It is a common struggle we see today–old buildings being leveled to make room for parking lots. At least an effort was put forward to try to save this structure. Preservationists back then saw the historical significance and made an attempt. I think there were important people who did not see the importance of saving landmarks. In addition to strong support, there was some strong opposition that stated the public should not be paying for somebody else’s hobby–implying that historical preservation was not a necessity. Had the building not been placed on government property, or if the society would have made a last ditch effort to move it, we may still have had this structure today.
(1) ODN 10/7/1937
(2) ODN 5/24/1947
(3) ODN 3/10/1948
(4) ODN 5/3/1948
(5) ODN 3/8/1949
(6) ODN 5/3/1949