Courthouse has classic style
Benton County has received more than $100,000 in grants for improvements.
Story and Photos by Holly Hope
Heritage and Tourism
The Benton County Courthouse, built in 1928, is the oldest building of three current courthouse structures built specifically for government use. And while two structures to the rear were ultimately appended to the courthouse in 2000, the principal façade still conveys its original Classical Revival architecture.
Benton County was formed from Lovely County on the Missouri-Arkansas border in 1836. The town of Bentonville was established by 1837 and official court sessions were held in the home of the first county judge, George P. Wallace. In 1838, the court approved a vote to build a log courthouse on the square but this was only meant to be a short-term solution. John and William Walker were engaged in 1841 to replace the log structure with a more substantial two-story brick building. The 1841 courthouse was destroyed when Union troops burned it in 1862.
During the Civil War there was little court business conducted, and the county court occupied a tobacco barn in the area of the square. Just after the end of the war a frame courthouse was erected. This was another temporary fix, and in 1870 it was ordered that the county’s fourth courthouse be constructed. The three-story brick building, completed in 1872, displayed Italianate features and the first internal jail on the third floor. The two-story frame building was disassembled and donated to the county poor farm in 1873.
Benton County underwent substantial growth at the end of the 19th century. The construction of the St. Louis San Francisco Railway contributed to the settlement of new towns and the expansion of the fruit industry. These factors contributed to more municipal business taxing the capacity of the courthouse. Three justices appointed to a committee researched the issue of whether to remodel the 1872 courthouse, or suggest new construction. In 1927, the vote for a modern courthouse at a cost of $200,000 was approved by the Levying Court.
Rogers, Arkansas, architect Albert Oscar Clark submitted the final Classical Revival design for the new building. The three-story courthouse, completed in 1928, consists of three bays on the front façade. The center bay features an arcaded porch reached by wide limestone steps. Five arches are articulated by rusticated limestone detail and keystones. The first floor consists of rusticated limestone spans and the second and third floors are veneered in yellow brick. The center bay above the porch is lit by five graceful fan windows flanked by six limestone pilasters. A square limestone panel below the central fan reads “Sovereignty Rests with the People.” A wide limestone frieze beneath a projecting cornice displays a relief carving reading “Benton County Courthouse.” Four squat pilasters rise above the cornice to a stepped pediment, in the center of which is a small limestone date stone with “1928” carved in relief. The pediment is topped with a projecting keystone.
Two side bays flanking the main entry of the façade are mirror images. Windows on the first floor are divided light, while the windows on the second and third floors are one-over-one double-hung openings with fixed transoms. Limestone ornamentation consists of corner pilasters and wide projecting limestone cornices spanning the top floor beneath a brick pediment. The north and south elevations of the courthouse feature projecting center bays and minimal limestone ornamentation.
Additions to the rear of the building obscure the original detail but match the scale and materials for an appropriate transition. In 1965, a structure for the jail was built behind the courthouse. This was separate until 2000, when the Judicial Tower was added to the rear of the courthouse. At that time the two structures were joined by a breezeway. The back wall and windows of the 1928 courthouse have been retained in a hallway abutting the Judicial Tower. In the 1980s, a one-story juvenile detention center was added to the rear of the jail. The 1965 jail is now the prosecuting attorney’s administrative offices, and the juvenile detention building is used for storage.
The lobby of the courthouse is largely original and features walnut wainscoting and trim. Curving staircases on the north and south sides display cast iron newel posts embellished with floral swags and egg and dart detail. Iron balustrades in a square geometric pattern are topped with wooden handrails.
The Classically detailed third-floor courtroom retains a great deal of detail. The paneled judge’s bench is flanked by tall wooden pilasters with Ionic capitols. Three fan lights provide a dramatic backdrop to the bench. The high coffered ceiling of the courtroom is finished with a pliable rubber covering that mimics the panel and rosette detail of traditional metal ceilings. The material used was an early attempt at sound deadening. It is not known when it was applied, but ornate wooden beams are evident under the rubber covering, so it appears to have been a later treatment. Originally, a balcony with a seating capacity of 750 spanned three sides of the courtroom. The balcony was closed off on two sides and reduced on the rear, eastern side, but the historic concrete risers for seating are extant behind the modern partition.
Since the 1928 cornerstone laying, attended by 4,000 people, the Benton County Courthouse has been well maintained. The original intent of the architect A.O. Clark persists due to the efforts of the county to preserve the building. Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said he believes historic buildings are useful buildings, and he sees the courthouse as “vital to our courts system, but also to the cultural and financial well-being of Bentonville…” The preservation of the Benton County Courthouse can be attributed in part to the financial assistance of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, a division of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism (formerly the Department of Arkansas Heritage). Since 2001, the department has provided $103,290 in grants to the courthouse for mechanical and electrical improvements.