1867 courthouse

A woman glances over her shoulder as she starts up the steps to the Episcopal chapel, perhaps wondering if she and her companion will reach their destination in view of the obstreperous cowpokes leering. This building later became the first courthouse for Walla Walla County.

The town of Walla Walla was originally laid out by county surveyor Hamet Hubbard Case in 1859, before its formal incorporation as a city in 1862, as a one-quarter mile square with its eastern side centered on the point where Main Street crossed Mill Creek (at roughly the point where it does now).

The original plat was lost, probably in the fire of 1865. Thus, the earliest plat on file is one made by W.W. Johnson, city surveyor, in July 1865 that claims to have made corrections to Case’s survey. Johnson’s survey was made the official plat of the City of Walla Walla on Sept. 25, 1866, was filed and recorded July 5, 1867.

The plat as amended by W.W. Johnson consisted of 18 full city blocks. The only block that was not divided into building lots was Block 9. Initially this block was known as Public Square and contained no buildings during the years it was owned by the city, even though it had been set aside as the future location of county government buildings.

For a number of years it contained a bandstand on the southwest corner near the intersection of Alder and Sixth streets. Until the time it would contain public buildings it served as a gathering place, a city park of sorts.

The city sold Block 9 to the county in 1870 and the name was changed from Public Square to Court House Square. The bandstand remained in place for a time after an earlier courthouse was built in the middle of the block in 1881, but eventually it disappeared. To this day the entire block remains the seat of Walla Walla County government.

Prior to acquiring Block 9, there was an earlier structure two blocks east that served for some years as a rudimentary courthouse. In Volume 1 of his “1918 History of Old Walla Walla County,” Whitman Professor W. D. Lyman wrote, “(At) a meeting of March 11, 1867 … it was voted to purchase … a building of S. Linkton on the corner of Alder and Third Streets … to be paid for in thirty monthly installments of $100 each.

“A further expenditure of $500 was made in fitting up the building for the use of the county (as) her first courthouse … and thus Walla Walla was able to hold up a dignified head and note with approval her first courthouse. That the structure was altogether unpretentious and devoid of all architectural beauty it is perhaps needless to say.”

What typified this basic building, among many other local structures, before the county purchased it was that it captured all that need be said about the rough and tumble town of Walla Walla in the 1860s. It had a saloon on the main level with an exterior staircase on the left side leading up to the Episcopalians’ then-place of worship.

In his 1882 “Historic Sketches of Walla Walla County,” F. T. Gilbert wrote that by 1873 a vote was taken as to whether or not to construct a real courthouse. Although many opposed building such a structure, the majority was in favor — 815 votes for and 603 against.

Accordingly, plans for the new building were called for “ … and in February, 1873, those of F. P. Allen (Walla Walla’s most noted architect in the decade before George W. Babcock and Henry Osterman) were adopted for a brick court-house on a stone foundation. The design would give ample accommodations to all the county officers, court and jury rooms, and in the basement a jail with twelve cells. There were two stories above the basement, and the whole was surmounted by a dome, making the structure of considerable beauty.

"Although the county now had a clear title to the court-house square on Main street, there were several parties who desired to enhance the value of their property, and therefore offered to donate land to the county upon which to erect the new building. These offers were considered and rejected, and the court-house square site was selected as the building site.

“Two weeks later the commissioners saw fit to rescind their former order and accept the offer of four blocks of land between Second and Fourth streets, and one-fourth mile north of Main street, much to the displeasure of the citizens who desired the building erected on the court-house square, where it would not take a Sabbath day’s journey to reach it.

“The next step by the board was to alter the plans and reduce the size of the building, take off the dome, and prune the structure of all its ornamental features, leaving it the appearance of a huge barn.

“The last act, and under the circumstances the most judicious one, was a conclusion not to erect the building at all.”

Stephen Wilen served two terms on the Historic Preservation Commission, is the lead researcher for Walla Walla 2020 Historic Properties and Plaque Project and a founding member of Walla Walla Historic Cemeteries. He may be reached at kensington1924@q.com.