The building that commands a low hill near the center of Joliet’s downtown stirs a mix of strong emotions among locals who grew up near its formidable physical and psychic presence. Passions are especially high lately. A wrecking ball may soon swing through the now-empty 1969 courthouse, obliterating one of the region’s first Brutalist structures.
Will County, which owns the structure, has yet to set a date, though its chief executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant is publicly committed to seeing the demolition through. The county has commissioned a firm to work up a schedule and set the costs. A growing group of locals, 580 so far, have organized the Courthouse Preservation Partnership to save the building. They’ve also rallied a statewide coalition of preservationists, including Landmarks Illinois, to get the Will County Board to stop a rushed razing and give the courthouse another hearing. A drive to confer landmark status on the courthouse is afoot, and a slew of government financial incentives for renovation would come with it. With a reprieve, the building could be adapted to other uses, and, the preservationists argue, be a vital economic anchor in a part of town where once-thriving department stores are now filled with lawyer’s signs that list the miseries they take on: “Divorce, Bankruptcy, Custody, Paternity, Traffic, DUI and… Criminal” cases. Those woes now spill forth in cases brought in the new, bigger, shinier $300 million courthouse around the block. Curiously, the new building seems designed to complement, handsomely and inoffensively, the signature bare concrete of the older building it was meant to send to the rock pile.
Joliet is famous for formidable public buildings that mete out justice. There’s the nearby Stateville Correctional Facility which still confines more than 2,000 prisoners. More famous, however, is the stony, castle-like 1858 Joliet Prison the State of Illinois decommissioned in 2002. Built of rough-hewn yellow limestone blocks, mined from local quarries, the fearsome prison is right out of movie mythology. And it’s been a frequent backdrop for films since the silent era. John Belushi, as Joliet Jake, walked out of the prison at the start of “The Blues Brothers.” The hit Fox series “Prison Break,” which ended in 2017, used the site regularly. For years, one local tells me, Joliet considered knocking down the old prison. Residents wearied of their city’s best-known landmark and the anchor of their place in popular culture, being the former home of some of the twentieth century’s most famous killers. Among the infamous: the homicidal boy geniuses Leopold and Loeb, gangster “Baby Face” Nelson, nurse-murderer Richard Speck, and serial-killer John Wayne Gacy. For years, the city explored tearing down the abandoned prison, which had been abused by vandals. Yet, in 2017 the City of Joliet took over the property from the state and launched a public-private partnership to shore up and clean the prison. Since then, the community has raised more than $10 million and volunteers have put in more than 15,000 hours to revive the prison as a local attraction. It now offers tours and has converted part of the property into a giant haunted “big house.” Last year the prison was even the site of a Blues Brothers convention.
The 1969 county courthouse doesn’t have the notoriety of the old prison, though it has had its share of notorious denizens in its basement jail and in its courtrooms. The trial of convicted wife-killer Drew Peterson took place in one of the courthouse’s finely crafted, wood-paneled Modernist courtrooms. One county official notes that when the Will County Board first voted to raze the building, and when it voted on related measures later, there was virtually no debate or discussion. That utter lack of deliberation might be because the authorities had simply felt that the building was universally loathed. It was the fortress-like building in downtown Joliet where people went with unpleasant business. From the outside, its imposing design seems meant to project the uncompromising might of the county’s legal machinery.
When the courthouse was built in the late 1960s, racial tension and political protests seethed across the country, and civic buildings were besieged. During the 1968 Democratic Convention, protestors gathered en masse to nominate a pig for president at the Chicago Civic Center Plaza (now Daley Plaza), another courthouse building, from 1965, designed by the architecture firm C.F. Murphy, which was also the design firm for the Will County building. Some protestors were arrested and unrest and a draconian police response marked the remainder of the convention. In that tumultuous cauldron, the Joliet courthouse rose like a battleship of state. “It’s the same with the new  city hall,” says Jacob Been, a partner at Healy Bender Patton and Been Architects, a Joliet firm (now in Naperville) that didn’t design the courthouse, but was hired to help with local construction. Been is too young to have worked on the courthouse, though he’s studied the original drawings and is rooting for its preservation. “These things are concrete and brick bunkhouses that are meant to give the sense that the government was strong and less transparent,” he says.
Le Corbusier declared that a house is a machine for living. The 1969 courthouse is a machine for justice. And built to project the gears of justice’s tight tolerances, to boot. Especially since, at the time it was built, they seemed so rickety.
With the exception of the jail in the courthouse basement, the building’s interiors, especially the upper floors that were home to the courtrooms and judges offices, are far less assertive, and more to human scale. Granted, the presence of judges, lawyers and criminal defendants make it hard for any room to feel welcoming. Even so, the wood-covered walls, modern lighting and sculptural finish to the concrete are designed to deemphasize the grandeur of authority and to convey the building’s democratic purpose. It may have been nearly impossible to look in from the outside (the new courthouse, by contrast, looks all but transparent), but on the inside, large windows bathe the halls with light and offer sweeping views of the downtown and countryside beyond. Architects of the era often touted the egalitarian nature of their Brutalist work which was free of ornament from more oppressive times. No Roman columns or carved fasces for them. Joliet was a city of workers, so its then-new courthouse didn’t feature gilded details. Never mind the contradiction of the concrete’s overwhelming mass, or that in the earlier days of our nation, classical motifs on courthouses were symbols of our democratic republicanism.
Today, the massive concrete of the courthouse would never pass muster. It would send verboten messages out of step with our age. Today’s courthouses, like the new one in Joliet, are built to convey transparency in government. What’s more, massive concrete comes with the massive carbon emissions that were embodied in their initial construction. In an era when governments and businesses—around here anyway—are working to drive emissions down, tearing the building down squanders the carbon “spent” long ago. The 1969 courthouse was built within the short time when it could be built and it’s unlikely that such massive concrete buildings will ever be built again. If we want to preserve the timeline of our architecture or our civic evolution, saving courthouses is a good idea.
One big advantage of the building’s massive design is that the exterior walls bear the structural support that would have otherwise been achieved with interior columns to hold up the floors. The potential for wide-open, uninterrupted floor space makes the building ripe for reconfiguration. A rendering of one of the early ideas floated by the preservation groups shows the inside of the courthouse converted to a public market.
All that interior warmth did not counter the fact that for the people of Joliet, the building was a Death Star where the Empire doled out parking tickets and restraining orders. Of course, all that machinery could serve people, too. On a Saturday morning in February, I traveled to Joliet. When I first parked and walked around the building, I stopped a woman striding beside me to ask what she thought of the building. “Well,” she told me with a fabulous grin, “I got three divorces in there and I needed them all. I think the building’s ugly, but it gave me my beautiful freedom. I love it.”
We were both heading for the Heart Bomb, a love-in for the building in which supporters drew placards with poems, hearts and cheerful drawings of the courthouse to plant in a patch of lawn by the building’s front door. They also donned T-shirts with the unofficial slogan of the effort, “Visit Will County, Home of the World’s Ugliest Courthouse.” To an outlander like me, the shirts make puzzling tokens of affection, but the slogan clicks with the Joliet crowd. For one thing, the city sits on Route 66, the byway that American motor tourists have long traveled in search of period architecture and the offbeat. Heck, they already stop in town to see the jail, pause to see a patch of the old highway’s original bricks at Dick’s, a towing service that also plants old cars on its roof, and to see the gargoyles atop Joliet Township High School, which, like the prison, is another castle-like structure made of local limestone (and was designed in part, by Daniel Burnham’s office). But should the preservation of the endangered courthouse building, let alone the drive to secure an official landmark designation for it, be touted with a hyperbolically negative assessment of its architecture? There are certainly rival claimants to the “ugliest” crown; I once went to a traffic court located in a repurposed strip mall. At the Heart Bomb, I ran into Hudson Hollister, the Joliet native who started the preservation effort. He was walking among the heart-filled signs planted in the lawn like giant Valentines. “Spread Love, Keep the Courthouse!” said one, “Brutalism on Trial! Found Not Guilty,” “I ♥️ the World’s Ugliest Courthouse,” and “Concretely Awesome” said others. Some were simply drawings of the courthouse in crayon or colored marker. I asked Hollister what I should think of the “ugliest courthouse” slogan. He waved to the signs and beamed, “Yeah, isn’t it great!”
Coming into Joliet it’s soon clear that the downtown has long been a place where older buildings vanished. Next to the courthouse is a vast parking lot that, midday on a beautiful, clear Saturday, is almost entirely empty. An abandoned car, adorned with the police stickers that warn its vanished owner to move it, sits in one of the lonely spots. It feels like a miniature emblem of the emptied building, also slated to be carted away. I wonder whether an empty parking lot would look any less blighted minus the car. One of the virtues of the concrete courthouse is that it has stood in its downtown spot as lots nearby were emptied. Joliet’s business district is hardly a zone that needs de-densification. A few buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, some in Joliet’s handsome stone, stand eerily disconnected, surrounded by ghostly empty lots that, in 1969 when the courthouse opened, were taken with shops, hotels and clubs that were part of a busy, uninterrupted regional center of commerce. Up to the late 1970s, downtown Joliet still had its share of luxury vendors and department stores. Sprawl, malls, big-box stores and now e-commerce have famously beaten up old downtowns. Government buildings are often the most solid remainders. Part of the affection for the muscular courthouse is that it has outlasted the ravages to downtown Joliet. Unloved, perhaps feared, but man-oh-man, is it stable.
While downtown Joliet languishes, Will County has been in economic overdrive. In a state where the biggest city and most counties are losing population, Will County continues to grow. Ironically, one of the chief engines for its growth is its gargantuan logistics sector which makes the county the largest inland port in the United States. It fills the region with goliath warehouses and intermodal yards and the kinds of infrastructure that has been instrumental to the consumer trends that unpack old downtowns.
Business districts, especially those surrounded by thriving communities, have been reviving. Joliet’s has worked to right itself, though its successes have seemed tentative. The downtown has a few small pockets where theater and restaurants entertain and it has some fashionable boutiques, but it also hosts the kind of gimcrack stores, pawnshops and empty spaces that are a disheartening feature of so many once-bustling commercial districts. Nearby precedents support the courthouse preservationists’ argument that saving and repurposing the courthouse could create a commercial and cultural anchor that would draw people downtown and spark vitality. One is Frankfort, Illinois, a half-hour away in Will County, which successfully revived its historic, and now charming, business district. In Rockford, The Amerock Building, an obsolete tower for light industry, was saved and converted. One estimate credits the effort, which includes a hotel and conference center, for drawing a whopping $400 million in additional development to the city.
As the effort to save the courthouse progresses, and appreciation for it builds, the preservationists may find it harder to hawk the appeal of the building’s presumed ugliness. In late February, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council voted unanimously to submit a nomination for landmark status for the building to the National Register of Historic Places. A deep dive into the building’s virtues got the landmarking effort this far, and as the process progresses, the history, design and social value of the building will get more scrutiny, too.
“I certainly don’t think the building is ugly,” says Elizabeth Blasius, who teaches architectural preservation at Illinois Institute of Technology. Blasius and business partner Jonathan Solomon run Preservation Futures, a consultancy that was hired by the courthouse coalition to build its advocacy and the case for landmarking. “I think the building is beautiful.” Blasius tells me that as a building is studied for landmarking, appreciation for it tends to grow. The process inverts the dynamic of blame, in which buildings that have gone shabby or are utterly neglected get blamed for their own demise. She argues that it is not the building that went wrong, but rather those charged with caring for it. One of the rubrics of preservationism is that when a building is cared for, people will care for it. That may be doubly true for public spaces where the citizens are both caregivers and users. The 1969 courthouse has virtues galore.
The outside of the building may have been at its most beautiful on that clear, deeply blue-skied, bright wintery Saturday. Triangular buttresses rise from the ground-level base of the courthouse, cutting well-defined shadows against bright concrete. The concrete, naturally, is made with Joliet limestone, which gives it a warm, lightly tinted amber hue that ties it to older buildings nearby. Above, the building’s windows grow in size with each level. On the bright Saturday, they, too, are set in dramatic shadow. The corners of the building cut in at right angles, which the angle of the sun lights variably, like the sharp folds of origami. In all, the courthouse looks as sculptural as it does monumental. There is nothing brutish about this Brutalism. The building’s lead architect, Otto Stark at C.F. Murphy (a firm that later became Murphy Jahn, and then JAHN), had been design partner at the office best known for buildings in the Miesian International Style. Stark was central to the design of several grand projects when Richard J. Daley was mayor, including the black steel-and-glass Lakefront McCormick Place. The Will County Courthouse marked a turn in his style toward Brutalism, the architectural movement popularized in Europe and, in the mid-to-late 1960s, was gaining currency in the United States.
Brutalism is more a broad category of architecture than a style. In the United States, it’s still more often misunderstood than not. Many people will know by now that the origin of its name does not come from the meaning of the English words “brute” or “brutal,” but rather from the French “beton brut” which describes raw or unfinished concrete. One more or less unified feature of Brutalist buildings is that the structural concrete in them is not covered, and the qualities of the material itself are a feature of the design, rather than say, something gray and inert and best obscured by other materials laid over it. Although Brutalist buildings often get the rap of being alien and unnatural, to their creators they were anything but. In Joliet, Stark’s design and specification of materials–especially the concrete– pay homage to the region’s natural history and the craft of those who mined local limestone and built with it.
Brutalism also gets a bad name because many of its examples strike the public as too massive, too unfinished and perhaps too much about the material and not enough about the people who use the buildings. Never mind that some of the public’s most beloved buildings are in the Brutalist mode. In Chicago we have Marina City, the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist and the Otto Stark-designed tower at 55 West Wacker, formerly the Blue Cross-Blue Shield headquarters. The Guggenheim Museum and the Washington D.C. Metro, both with Chicago roots, are among the nation’s most-admired modern structures. Stark’s courthouse is far from the roughly finished, irregularly shaped Brutalism that usually earns derision. On my way to the courthouse from my home in Hyde Park, I passed McCormick Place, taking in its linear elegance and wondering how Stark made the transition from that style to Brutalism. Yet, the aesthetics of the two buildings are more connected than I expected. The courthouse, too, is powerfully linear. Its windows line up as if they were on a steamship. Like McCormick Place, the courthouse lifts gracefully from the ground. Unlike the cartoon often made of Brutalism, the exterior finish of the building is far from coarse. The concrete on the outside likely builds on an innovation of architect Paul Rudolph called “roping,” in which finely etched channels on the surface steer water downward so that the weathering of the material happens inside the grooves and not across the surface. That’s why the courthouse’s exterior looks nearly as finely surfaced as when the building went up. This may be one of the only buildings in the country where the Brutalism is so refined while the older stone block buildings around it look inescapably rough and rocky. As a piece of architectural history, Stark’s courthouse makes Joliet home to a kind of missing link in the progression of Brutalism in the United States. Tearing it down would make it a missing missing link.
Blasius notes that the period of Brutalism’s American heyday in the sixties and seventies has yet to gain much attention for landmarking or preservation. Yet, some Brutalist buildings are now sixty years old and the pressures to tear them down are growing worldwide. In March last year, Ryan Waddoups, writing in Surface, offered this litany: “Brutalist structures around the world are being torn down at a rapid pace, from the scheduled demolition of Kenzo Tange’s stacked Kuwait Embassy in Tokyo to Tunisia’s striking upside-down Hôtel du Lac by Raffaele Contigiani that’s rumored to have inspired ‘Star Wars.’ Paul Rudolph’s… Burroughs Wellcome headquarters in North Carolina and the Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo [have been] razed… Now, the Modernist architect’s Government Services Center in Boston—particularly the Charles F. Hurley Building—is facing a similar fate.”
One of the biggest ironies in the urge of Will County officials to tear down the building is that it would be taking down a building that was designed to look futuristic. It’s no accident that Brutalist buildings are favored settings for sci-fi films and video games. Yet, the building seems to trigger the city’s deep regret for tearing down the highly decorated Victorian-era courthouse that predated it. That building’s end came when the county believed it was worn-out and ugly. “I suspect that building was not saved because the downtown was thriving then and it was torn down because people thought it was dated,” says Jacob Been. “The tastes and needs for courthouses change pretty quickly. The needs for security change, for instance, and no one wanted an 1887 Romanesque courthouse.” Should a more recent building be demolished out of regret for the loss of an even older one? Might it be better to learn the lesson that today’s taste for demolition may lead to regret tomorrow?
As part of its effort to save the building, Landmarks Illinois, with the support of the Courthouse Preservation Partnership, asked architects and developers to offer draft proposals on how to convert the building into a lively asset for Joliet. Several firms responded, and by mid-March the group had received a selection of six reworkings of the building, some from firms with decades of experience with preservation and renovation work. Some of the ideas were conservatively utilitarian, some less so. One proposal holds out a big carrot to the county, suggesting that the building be converted to new government office space and be made part of a larger complex with private offices. Another envisions a hotel. There are suggestions for housing, an entertainment venue, a school and a museum, too.
Some of the schemes emphasize adaptive reuse over historic preservation, and reorient and reshape the building into a more contemporary design that deemphasizes the Brutalist design. Those won’t likely heed the goals of the groups now trying to save the building. Any effort that spares the building from destruction, however, would have merit beyond economics or aesthetics. One firm also made its case for saving the building on environmental grounds. Architects are increasingly aware of climate-warming carbon emissions associated with new construction. One of the best ways to cut emissions from new construction is to reuse old buildings instead of tearing them down and replacing them. One virtue of unfinished concrete, once it’s in place, is that it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, a service to the planet that the 1969 courthouse now provides. Even building a carbon-neutral building to replace it cannot come close to the old building on sustainability.
If the courthouse gains national landmark status, its developer can be eligible for tax credits that, in effect, cover up to forty-five percent of the costs of renovation. That possibility wasn’t considered when the Will County Board voted for demolition in 2019. Neither was there any evidence of public will in favor of saving the building. Sometime this spring, the board will vote on whether to proceed with demolition. So far most of the members have remained quiet on the issue, though at their last meeting they gave the group for preservation a short hearing. The legal issue of whether a piece of public property can be developed for mixed-use may need working out if the board tilts toward saving the building. The Will County State’s Attorney has issued an opinion that any land or building in trust for the county can only be used for an official “public use.” One big question is whether preservation itself is “a public use.” The groups working to save the building have their own legal opinions that offer an expanded understanding. Of course, to those who plant hearts in front of the courthouse, and who make silly T-shirts showing their deep affection toward it, tearing down the courthouse denies the public not just the building but an important part of Joliet’s past as well as its future.