Woodbury County was officially organized with an act of the Iowa legislature in 1853. The area was originally named Wahkaw, but when the county was officially organized, it was named after a Supreme Court justice, Levi Woodbury. From New Hampshire, Woodbury served on the Supreme Court for five years until his death in 1851.
William Thompson’s little log house at Floyd’s Bluff was selected as the first county seat of Woodbury County in 1853. The little town of Sioux City became the county seat in the spring of 1956.
For the first twenty years, Woodbury County’s government did not have a permanent building. The courthouse offices were scattered in other buildings around town, often in homes.
In 1875, the county voted to build an official courthouse on the southeast corner of Sixth and Pierce. The contract was awarded to Charles and Daniel Hedges. The three-story structure, completed in 1878 at a cost of about $75,000, was built of Minnesota Kasota stone. It featured spacious offices, a frescoed courtroom and a jail in the basement. The Goddess of Justice stood atop the domed corner tower, which was decorated with four golden eagles. This courthouse served the county well for many years. However, after the turn of the century, Woodbury County’s growing population dictated the need for larger facilities.
In 1914, the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors began to look into the idea of constructing a new courthouse. In June of that same year, citizens of the county voted in favor of a $500,000 bond issue for a new courthouse. At first, the site of the original courthouse was suggested, but in September of 1914, the citizens voted again and decided on the location of Seventh and Douglas streets. The old courthouse was sold for $231,000 to the Farmers Loan and Trust Company. The old building was torn down, and the Orpheum Building was later built at that location.
Scores of architects applied to be in charge of the Woodbury County Courthouse project. Local architect William Steele submitted his gothic revival plan into the limited competition. On January 2, 1915, the Sioux City Journal announced: “W. L. Steele will draw the plans and supervise the erection of Woodbury County’s new $500,000 courthouse.” Steele assured the board that he would retain the best architects in the county to assist him in drawing the plans.
William Steele was able to convince the supervisors that the Woodbury County Courthouse should be created in a Midwestern or Prairie style rather than traditional gothic architecture. With their permission, he began to plan a building in the Prairie School style. He immediately engaged George Elmslie and William Purcell as associate architects. All three men had worked with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and were heavily influenced by his Prairie School style of architecture. The courthouse design was primarily Elmslie’s, and Purcell oversaw the artists.
William Steele originally came to Sioux City in 1904 and quickly became one of the city’s most prominent architects. Born in Illinois in 1875, he received his degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1896. While in Sioux City, he designed many buildings including: the Livestock National Bank, Williges Store, Davidson Office Building, St. Monica’s Home, old Sioux City Journal Building, Blessed Sacrament School and numerous homes and churches. He remained in Sioux City until 1928 when he moved to Omaha, Nebraska.
Steele, Elmslie and Purcell designed the courthouse to be practical and functional. They convinced the supervisors that the traditional classic courthouse design did not provide a practical use of interior space. They planned the interior first, carefully considering the needs of the county. Then, the exterior design grew out of the interior plan. The result was that this courthouse would have more functional working space than courthouses build in a more classical style.
Their building design featured two functional parts. The square base contained the offices most used by the public, such as auditor, treasurer, record and clerk. The tower held offices and the law library.
The Woodbury County Board of Supervisors approved preliminary sketches of the courthouse plans on March 23, 1915, but opposition to the “modern” design began to arise. Many called the building “radical” or “experimental” and called for a more classical looking building. A businessmen’s advisory committee, led by merchant Ben Davidson, condemned the structure as an “architectural experiment”. They preferred granite or Bedford limestone instead of brick. “Brick for such buildings is used only where the community cannot afford a better and more expensive material.”
The businessmen recommended that the first floor should be lowered to sidewalk level and that the basement be used for storage and mechanical purposes only. They also wanted to eliminate the tower and add two stories to the building, stating that “The tower design is unusual and extreme”.
“The style of the building, everything considered, runs counter to all precedent, and we cannot believe that public opinion does or ever will approve it….We are firmly convinced that the citizens of Woodbury County prefer a courthouse of ordinary and usual design…”
Despite the protests, the board of supervisors unanimously approved the final courthouse plans on December 7, 1915.
The cornerstone for the new courthouse was laid on July 10, 1916 and the building was ready for business by March 1, 1918. It cost about $850,000 to construct, a little over fifty cents per square foot.
The courthouse, designed in the prairie style, was constructed of Roman brick with a granite base. Elaborate terra cotta trim decorates the exterior. Above the west doors, an immense figure symbolizes the Spirit of Law. On each side are figures symbolic of Society under the Law: the old and young, the soldier, the laborer, the father, the mother, the irresponsible and those who have known grief. Above the figures is written: “Justice and Peace have met together; Truth hath spring out of the Earth.”
At the west entrance are the figures of a man and a woman holding a child. They symbolize the family. Above the door are the words “Justice and Humanity”. The sculptures were the work of Alfonso Iannelli of Park Ridge, Illinois.
The interior of the building is decorated with a series of murals by John Warner Norton. The four murals represent a primitive court, rural farm life, urban life, and a tribute to the soldiers of World War I. The walls are adorned with intricate terra cotta moldings and sculptured light fixtures. At the center of the two-story base is a beautiful stained glass dome
The Woodbury County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1996. It is the largest publicly owned prairie school building in the world.
Des Moines Register, January 11, 1953
Wilson, Richard Guy and Sidney Robinson, The Prairie School in Iowa,
Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa 1977
Sioux City Journal, December 7, 1914, January 2, 1915;
The Western Architect, February 1921
Pratt, Leroy, The Counties and Courthouses of Iowa, Klipto Printing and Office Supply Company, Mason City, Iowa 1977
Woodbury County Courthouse, Sioux City, Iowa 1918, 50th Anniversary brochure