Courthouse has starring role

History: The structure that gave rise to Bel Air has evolved through fire, a close call with explosives and several remodelings -- and yet it retains its prominence.

Courthouse evolves in its star role

October 27, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

If Ralph E. Featherstone and William H. Payne's plan had worked, the Harford County Courthouse, one of the county's most historically significant buildings, would be long gone, blown to bits by the explosives the two men carried in their car on that fateful day in March 1970.

The men were in Bel Air for the opening day of pretrial proceedings for black activist H. Rap Brown, who was charged with inciting a riot in Cambridge in 1967. The trial had been moved to Harford from Dorchester County.

Authorities say Featherstone and Payne -- one of whom was a friend of Brown's -- had planned to blow up the courthouse but were deterred by security around the building. As they drove out of town on U.S. 1 about midnight March 10, 1970, the explosives went off and both men were killed.

A courthouse has stood on the same spot on Main Street in Bel Air, the county seat, since 1791 -- less than two decades after the county was formed. Historians say the structure is the reason Bel Air exists, and prospers. Its loss would have been devastating, said Circuit Judge William O. Carr, who has worked in the courthouse as a lawyer and judge for 25 years and is compiling a history of the building for the Historical Society of Harford County.

"There are certainly older buildings" in the county, Carr said. "But none have played as central a role in Harford County life as the courthouse."

The original courthouse, which was destroyed by fire in 1858, was a two-story brick structure and was the only building for county business in all of Harford. The courtroom, which had a large fireplace at either end, was on the ground floor and was lit by candles in pewter holders. The jury room and government offices were on the second floor. The only staircase was outdoors -- a location that was "very convenient if you were a politician and needed to give a speech" from the second-floor landing, Carr said.

The courtroom was the largest room in town and was therefore used for everything from church services by itinerant preachers to the organizational meeting of the Harford Mutual Fire Insurance Co. It was there in 1850 that famed Shakespearean actor and Harford native Edwin Thomas Booth gave one of his first performances while on summer vacation from the New York theater.

His portrait and those of 58 other famous native sons and one native daughter hang throughout the building today.

The courthouse fire Feb. 20, 1858, was reportedly sparked by a stove in the clerk's office. At 4 a.m., according to a historian's account quoted in a 1961 article in The Sun, townspeople "collected around the doomed structure without being able to give battle to the flames, there being no fire apparatus of any kind in the village."

The fire burned for two hours, destroying the central core of the building and many of the county's records. Two wings, which had been added in the 1830s, were saved because they were protected by fireproof doors and shutters.

The original courthouse was replaced in 1858 with the brick Italianate structure with arched windows that stands there today. Two wings were added in 1904.

In its newer incarnation, the main courtroom with its glowing walnut bailiff chairs and elliptical trial table is housed on the second floor. Arranged as an amphitheater, the room has changed little since it was built almost 150 years ago. "A person from 1860 could walk into the courtroom today and it would feel like someplace he knew," Carr said.

Other courtrooms, such as the ones in the annex built behind the original courthouse in the 1980s, may be sleeker and more modern, but the old courtroom -- sometimes called the "ceremonial courtroom" -- has gravitas.

"It's one of the most attractive courtrooms around," said T. Carroll Brown, 86, a lawyer who has been practicing in town since 1950.

The upper floor of the old courthouse houses the chambers of Carr and Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr. and the courtroom. The first floor is occupied by the offices of Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

Until the early 1950s, the Harford County Courthouse was one of the only public office buildings in the county, Carr said. A single judge handled all of the civil and criminal cases of the Circuit Court until the early 1960s. By the time the area's population began booming in the late 1960s, the courthouse was crowded, according to Carr.

A modern addition was agreed upon in the mid-1970s but wasn't completed until 1983 because of political squabbling about where it should go. Harford County's first county executive, Charles B. Anderson Jr., wanted to make the old courthouse into a museum and build a new one across the street on what is now the parking lot for the state offices. The County Council wanted to add onto the existing courthouse.

The dispute was settled, and after the Masonic temple and Harford Bank buildings behind the courthouse were razed, a five-level, 61,700-square-foot addition was completed for about $8.5 million.

Today, the union of old and new buildings has its champions and detractors.

"I think the old part of the courthouse has charm and fits in very well with the newer part," said Brown.

For State's Attorney Cassilly, who first came to the courthouse with his father in 1957, there is no comparison.

"The old part of the building is comfortable, austere," he said. "The new part of the building is like something out of a parking garage."

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