Courthouse History

McHenry County was established in 1836.  It extended from the Boone County line to Lake Michigan and the county seat was located in the village of McHenry.    A few years later, the Illinois legislature divided the county into present day Lake and McHenry counties.   The population of McHenry County was dissatisfied that the County Seat was now so far to one side and in 1842, the legislature passed an act authorizing the people to select a new county seat.

The Act stipulated that the place receiving the most votes must donate 2 acres of land for a public square and build upon that square “as good a courthouse as there is now in McHenry.”

Several locations were offered including the land claim pre-empted by Alvin Judd which was as close as possible to the geographic center of the county. After an election, Centerville, was selected.     In September of 1844 the Legislature officially changed the name of the town from Centerville to Woodstock.

A plain two story courthouse, 33 by 40 feet in area, was constructed in 1844.  It supposedly stood a little south of the center of the public square.   The sheriff’s office, living quarters, and jail were on the first floor, while the courtroom occupied the second floor.   The courtroom was used for everything from political meetings to religious services, social occasions and school classes.  There was however, no space for county offices.

By the mid 1850’s, the courthouse in the center of the square was proving to be too small, and county officials were renting office spaces in commercial buildings around the square.

The County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution on June 1, 1855 providing that if the citizens of Woodstock would purchase the property then owned by Mary McMahon and donate it to McHenry County, the County would donate the old wood-framed courthouse in the square to the citizens of Woodstock.  Woodstock citizens did purchase McMahon property which was occupied by the Hill tavern, for $3,000 and the title to the old courthouse and park were transferred to the town.

In May 1855, the Board of Supervisors appointed a committee to procure plans and specifications for a courthouse and jail.  The building was to be two stories above the basement, 44 feet square with four end projections, 20 feet by 44 feet, surmounted by a cupola and dome at a cost of $47,000.

The Courthouse was designed by Chicago’s first architect John Mills Van Osdel of Van Osdel and Baumann who designed many well-known buildings including  the OgdenMansion in 1837, Rush Medical College in 1844, the Palmer House, and the old Cook County Courthouse.

The Board of Supervisors seem to have been very involved in the  courthouse  design, right down to specifying that the “grade of the top of the excavation of the cellar was to be 2 ½ feet below grade on the northeast corner of Jackson Street, though a newspaper article reported that was not what the plans showed.

Specifications said the brick was to be the best quality of Woodstock brick, hard burnt and that all soft brick deposited at the building might be sent back to the kiln by order of the public building committee, at the expense of the contractors.

In May of 1857, the Committee on Public Buildings reported that the walls of the basement and first story had been completed, that there were 8 to 12 inches of ice and water in the basement, and the walls were badly cracked.  During construction the two Woodstock newspapers reported on the controversy regarding the quality/hardness of the brick and the way the stone was cut.

The Board of Supervisors asked Van Osdel and Baumann to look at the situation.  The architects felt that the walls were ok and a committee was appointed to recommend a plan for drainage.

Another committee was then appointed to look into feasibility and cost of the drainage improvements and also to look into cleansing of the vaults of the privy of the courthouse and jail.

Later that year, the Board of Supervisors authorized the construction of two cisterns to receive water coming from the angles of the roof, both for the accommodation of the courthouse and for the protection of the building in case of fire.  The water from those cisterns helped to save the courthouse at least once—in 1871 when fire burned the southwest corner of the square—the same day as the Chicago fire.

The courthouse was completed by February of 1858 and the editor of the newspaper gave his readers a  tour of the building, describing the 17 steps to the granite (though it was actually limestone) encased doorway, the interior floor plan, the jail cells and their massive doors.

Nine years after the building was completed, the Woodstock Sentinel reported that the exterior of the courthouse was undergoing a process that involved a thin coat of red plaster or mortar being burned into the face of the brick with muriatic acid and that a white mortar was used to mark fake mortar joint outlines.  It was reported that the process cost but little more than painting and looked better and lasted longer.  (The results of this effort are still visible today.)

Old Sanborn fire insurance maps show exterior steps on the back side of the courthouse as well as the front—including steps up to the first floor and from descriptions of the interior we know that there was a second curved interior staircase like the one that remains.  These features were removed in 1901 to create more office and vault spaces.

For a while the old cells in the basement (or ground floor) were used for the County Clerk’s record storage but they were not fireproof.  A 25 x 14 ft. addition was built on the north side.  It provided vaults in the basement and the first floor for the County Clerk and a private chamber on the second floor, off the circuit court room for the circuit judge. (This was around 1904.)

A 45’ x 18’ addition was added to the south side of the building in 1905.  This included a larger office and better vault room for the Circuit Clerk.

The fence was installed around the courthouse in 1884. This may be when the railing was installed along the limestone stairs.

The most recent Courthouse additions are at the northeast corner and the southwest corner of the building and these were not designed with the same attention to the original appearance.


The sheriff originally had his residence in the south end of the first floor of the courthouse while the basement was used for a jail.

In 1910 when workmen were installing a new heating system in the space occupied by two former cells in the old jail, it was described like this:  The jail was arranged with a large corridor around the outside, while a dozen or more cells or dungeons were placed in the center.  They were constructed of twelve inch brick work lined with 3 inch oak planks.  Overhead, there were similar planks, covering 6 inches of solid masonry.     Heavy oak plank doors, each with a small opening, covered the iron bars.  These openings gave the only light that could penetrate into the cells.

There must have been some cells on the outside wall because in August of 1886 a jailbreak was narrowly avoided after a neighbor reported seeing light shining through the brick wall.   An investigation revealed that the prisoners “by assiduous work” had succeeded in displacing the brick from the wall and making a hole about two feet square.

McHenry County’s only legal hanging occurred on July 16, 1886.  James Dacey of Chicago was convicted of shooting and killing a Chicago alderman.   He was moved to the McHenry County jail and held until his execution.   A week before the hanging, Simon Brink who would later oversee the construction of the Opera House, assembled the scaffold for the hanging.

The state board that inspected jails and other institutions described the 1886 jail as newly whitewashed and as neat as possible with 14 cells which would accommodate 28 prisoners.  The cells were without ventilation.  There was some light in the corridor next to the window.  The report said the jail should be abandoned.

In 1887, the Board of Supervisors appropriated $20,000 to purchase a suitable location and erect a new building for the sheriff’s residence and jail and to remodel the old jail into vaults for county records. The Neill Donnelly property, adjacent to the north, while the most expensive, was considered the best choice of locations.

The Sheriff and his family moved into the new structure in November 1887.  They resided in the east half of the building and the jail was in the back.  The sheriff’s wife was expected to cook meals for the prisoners.  The jail’s best-known prisoner was Eugene Debs who during his six month stay in Woodstock was called on by prominent national and international visitors.

The new jail was remodeled in 1912.  Conditions previously had been described as insufficiently ventilated including no ventilation for the “night buckets.”

On the first floor there were 8 steel cells, each with two steel wall cots, a toilet and a stand.  The second floor was reserved for women and boys—4 cells for each.  Each cell had an outside window and there was a bathroom for each section.

A padded cell was provided for the insane though not all sheriffs used it–some treated the insane as sick and in need of care—not dangerous criminals.

The McHenry County jail was a busy place during prohibition.  It was reported that 73 federal prisoners were housed there at various times, including two members of the Dino O’Banion gang—Dapper Dan McCarthy and Heimie Wiess who were convicted of booze hijacking.  Since there were no federal prisons, they were sent to the McHenry County jail where Sheriff Edinger put them to work helping to build the   garage behind the jail.     At the time, the Chicago Tribune described the Woodstock Jail as an ancient pile with the bill of fare and a considerate sheriff about all to recommend it.  Sheriff Edinger sets the best table in the district.

The Sheriff’s office was located on the second floor of the old courthouse until around 1950.  It consisted of two rooms that overlooked the square.  When the sheriff got a call, he and his deputy had to race down the curved staircase, then down the stairway to the boiler room, and out the back door to the garage on Throop Street.  Finally the office was moved to the basement of the Sheriff’s residence, giving a little more room for the addition of detectives and the police radio.

The basement of the jail was also used for evidence storage.  Up through the 1950’s, it held many confiscated slot machines from raids until there was a court order to destroy them.  During prohibition, one raid netted 100 barrels of beer which were held in the basement and then dumped down a drain. At other times, fine wine, beer, and clear moonshine were dumped as well.

Sheriff Hick Nulle was the first to use two-way police radios; however, it was not a perfect system.   Radio calls to the Sheriff’s office interrupted church services at the Baptist Church, located across Throop Street on the back side of the courthouse.  The police radio antenna was located on top of the courthouse and somehow the amplifier in the church organ would pick up police radio calls.

Felony Court was held on the 2nd floor of the courthouse and prisoners arrived there through a passage connecting the top floor of the jail to the circuit court room.  In later years there were also two courtrooms on the first floor.

The County had outgrown the courthouse and jail long before they actually moved out.  In 1958, the County purchased the former Central School from School District 75 for $85,000 and this building became known as the Courthouse Annex.  The County (and City) spent at least a decade discussing alternate sites and preparing plans.

The courthouse complex was sold to private investors in the early 1970’s.  The County left the building with outdated mechanical systems, window air conditioners, partially-closed window openings, and a multitude of outside entry doors.

The buildings were remodeled into shops and restaurants and have been used by a radio studio, art gallery, art studio, music studio, and the Chester Gould Dick Tracy museum.

The courthouse was listed on the National Register in 1973.

Excerpts from an armchair tour of the courthouse today:

Ground level:  you can still see portions of the old jail cells,  including a couple that are used for closets; also the painted vault door in the bar area.

The front steps are limestone and are in need of restoration.  There is some kind of recent epoxy coating applied over the limestone that will need to be removed before we know more about the condition of the limestone itself.

For several decades there was an enclosure which functioned as a vestibule.    This was not an original feature and it was removed during the 1970’s remodeling.

The stairs lead up to the first floor which is used as an art gallery and for music lessons.   Inside the galleries, you can see the hand-painted doors to three old vaults—used by the county clerk, treasurer, and recorder of deeds offices.

The stairwell at the rear of the first floor beyond the exit sign was installed after the county moved out, presumably for better emergency egress. The previous stairs terminated into what is now the restaurant kitchen.

The curved stairway is an original feature of the building. The stairs lead up to the courtroom and spaces which were used by the Board of Supervisors, and jurors’ rooms, including overnight sleeping rooms for jurors.  To me, the graceful curved stair and curved wall are quite a contrast to the otherwise very heavy, very rectangular architecture.

The Circuit Court Room is on the right at the top of the stairs.  The room probably originally had wainscoting and a plaster ceiling.   The county remodeled the courtroom in 1935. The judge’s desk appears to be the same, and it looks like they kept the original turned balusters of the bench and configured them differently and installed a different top rail.  The book shelves were definitely added at a later date.

The judge’s chamber behind the courtroom was added 1904.  Most recently it held banquet supplies.  The best part about this room is that is offers several clues to original building finishes.  You can see stencil designs on the walls, and faux-grained wood trim around the windows and doors.

One of the really unique things about the courthouse is the ventilation system in the ceiling of the court room.    There are two vents and they are still functional.   They can still be opened by pulling ropes in the attic.

The columns in the courtroom continue down through the gallery below and are part of the system that supports the weight of the dome.

Across the hall from the courtroom, are three studios and a classroom utilized by local artists.  The ceilings in these rooms are 21 feet high

Access to the attic was changed at least twice.  The stairs and room at the end of the hall were changed in the 1970s.  Restrooms and storage rooms were constructed and the new stairwell that serves the other floors was continued up to the third floor attic.

 The dome was not always white, but of course early photos were black and white, so we don’t know what the original color scheme of the dome was, but old photos reveal that there were many color combinations over the years.

Today, the courthouse still remains as the icon of the Woodstock Square. Woodstock’s efforts to restore the historic structure will allow it to remain preserved for many future generations to come.



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