Courthouse is the key to town history

Landmark: The building is credited with helping turn Bel Air from an agricultural town into a thriving hub.

Cover Story

October 24, 2004|By Joe Eaton | Joe Eaton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bel Air became the county seat of Harford County in 1782. But not until 1790 did the town become the center of the region.

That is when the Harford County Courthouse was built. The town began to spring up around it.

Although that first wooden courthouse burned in 1858, the brick courthouse that was built on the same spot later that year remains.

One of the most important historical buildings in Harford County, the courthouse has been expanded several times in 146 years. Still, much of the grand building remains unchanged.

"It's a very dignified and beautiful place," said Circuit Judge Maurice W. Baldwin Jr., who hears cases in the ceremonial courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse. "It's like walking into a massive cathedral, how it gives you a feeling of grandeur."

Baldwin's courtroom is the highlight and most historically accurate section of the courthouse.

Curved walnut benches that resemble church pews provide visitor seating.

The benches where the clerk, the judge and the sheriff sit were saved from the fire in the original courthouse, along with a large oval trial table where attorneys face the judge with their clients.

Baldwin's courtroom looks nearly the same as it always has.

In the early 1980s, the room was taken apart for renovation. The benches and wooden railing were shipped to Pennsylvania for refinishing.

Architects reassembled the room in reverse to improve the use of space. Baldwin now sits on the opposite side of the courtroom from where judges sat before the renovation.

From his bench, Baldwin looks straight across the room at a portrait of Edwin Booth, a famous Shakespearean actor from Harford County and the brother of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Behind the judge hangs a portrait of William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. To his left is Stevenson Archer, a former judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Altogether, there are 62 oil portraits of Harford County lawyers, judges, politicians, and war heroes in the courthouse.

Everyone who works at the courthouse is something of a building historian.

Among them, Charles Robbins, a retired history teacher who now works as a title searcher, is the resident expert.

"Bel Air is Bel Air because the courthouse is here," Robbins said, explaining how businessmen built hotels and saloons around the courthouse to serve travelers shortly after it was built.

The courthouse turned an agricultural center into a town. The land that the courthouse was built on was called Scott's Old Fields, because the land was worn-out tobacco fields, Robbins said.

As the county grew, so did the courthouse.

In 1904, additions were added to the front and the back of the building. In 1981, a modern wing was built, taking over land where Wall Street and a Masonic Temple once stood.

Working in an old building has its drawbacks. Finding space to run a 21st-century court in a 19th-century building can be a challenge.

There is not enough storage space, said Clerk of the Circuit Court James Reilly. Records are crammed where they will fit, including in the bell tower, which no longer houses a bell.

The struggle between preserving history and meeting the modern needs of a working courthouse in an expanding county is not new.

In his 1996 book, An Architectural History of Harford County, Maryland, Christopher Weeks wrote that the additions to the courthouse symbolize the steady deterioration of Harford County architecture.

The courthouse has also changed to combat modern fears.

Visitors now pass through metal detectors on their way into the building. Security cameras hang from old red bricks at each corner. The wooden doors at the front entrance are now closed.

But if Baldwin has his way, the ceremonial courtroom will never be changed, regardless of the advantages modern technology could bring. Computers are kept out of sight.

"I would like to see it remain the way it was meant to be, without a lot of modern accents," Baldwin said.

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