Doing courtoom justice

Conservation team recovers beautiful details hidden behind years of "benign neglect."

of The News-Sentinel

Superior artwork
News-Sentinel photo by Ellie Bogue

Superior artwork
Artist Viktor Doudkin, of EverGreene Studios in New York City, touches up one of the murals he helped re-create in Superior Courtroom No. 2 in the Allen County Courthouse. The work was done in February 2001.
It's not known if Gen. Anthony Wayne's battlefield scowl scared any local criminals straight, or if the image of blind Justice flanked by angels persuaded reluctant witnesses to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

But it's likely. Throughout its first century, the Allen County Courthouse's magnificent courtrooms must have inspired fear, as well as fascination and fortitude, in pursuers of due process.

"I still sit at trial and wonder at the glory of it," Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan said in 1994, just as the $10 million courthouse renovation project was getting under way.

With their grand dimensions, opulent finishes and bold artwork, the four third-floor courtrooms underscore our forefathers' abiding respect for the law and their pride in Fort Wayne's unprecedented prosperity. They spared little expense to build local architect Brentwood Tolan's Beaux-Arts masterpiece, the fourth courthouse to sit on the current site.

When the blue limestone beauty was completed in 1902, the labor, materials and furnishings totaled $800,000. The artwork alone cost $35,000, said Elaine Skoog, executive director of the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust, which is overseeing restoration.

"They brought wonderful artists in to do the work," she said.

The William Andrews Co. of Clinton, Iowa, won the original decorative contract. A talented fresco painter himself, Andrews was able to hire premier artists and persuade them to collaborate on company projects. He commissioned three of the nation's best muralists -- Carl Gutherz, Florian Piexotto and Charles Holloway -- to create the lush paintings in the courthouse's courtrooms.

Fort Wayne artists Robert Staak, whose work was exhibited at the Chicago Expo, and William Barth sculpted most of the courtrooms' detailed bas-reliefs.

Many more unsung artisans painted plaster to create the scagliola -- faux marble -- that covers courtroom walls. They crafted intricate art-glass insets for all four courtroom ceilings. They embellished cornices, pediments and pilasters with scrolls, shells, rosettes and ribbons. They carved, sanded and stained oak and mahogany woodwork, including massive doors, judges' benches and jury boxes.

The design of the third floor, also called the judiciary floor, demonstrates an appreciation for practical function as well as aesthetic form, Skoog said. The courtrooms each are equipped with separate chambers for judges, juries, witnesses and private consultations. In the interest of privacy and convenience, these rooms are connected by corridors not generally used by the public. The former law library, now used as offices, is located on the west side of the third floor.

While the courtrooms have remained fully functional over the last 100 years, time took its toll on the artistry inside them. In 1994, several groups interested in restoring the courthouse donated $6,000 to have Fort Worth, Texas, fine-arts conservator Perry Huston survey the murals in the rotunda and in the courtrooms. Jeffrey Greene, a decorative arts conservator from New York, accompanied Huston during part of his survey.

The experts had mostly bad news for the courthouse boosters, including the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. Murals were faded, dirty and in need of repair. Those painted by Holloway and Piexotto in Allen Superior Courtroom No. 2 were coming loose and had been totally repainted in the late 1940s, Huston said. Large portions of murals by Gutherz in the Allen Circuit Courtroom also had been painted over at that time. In addition, improper cleaning had damaged the patina of moldings, and the rare scagliola (pronounced "ska-lee-O-la") was cracked and buckling.

In spite of what Greene described as "benign neglect," he and Huston concluded some of the artwork was restorable. What could not be saved could be faithfully replicated, they said.

Superior Courtroom No. 1, located on the far south end of the courthouse, is paneled in dark green Massachusetts scagliola and crowned with lighter faux-marble borders, in a shade called Alpine green.

A frieze of 20 bronze sculpted panels -- the work of Staak and Barth -- encircles the room just below the decorative cornice. Five reliefs on each of the four walls represent the U.S. government as a whole (west wall) and three government "departments": sciences (north wall); industrial and liberal arts (east wall); and fine arts (south wall). Depictions of historical figures (an anonymous Native American and Greek astronomer Hipparcus, for example); real places (the U.S. Capitol and Egyptian pyramids); mythological characters (Cupid, Flora and Fauna); and ancient symbols (the owl and sphinx, which signify wisdom) are used to illustrate broad concepts such as Progress, Laws, Literature and Education.

Two panels on the south "fine arts" wall deserve special mention because they were created by visiting artists. Cincinnatian Richard Zeitner, a friend of Barth, crafted "Music," featuring a woman playing a pipe organ. William Ehrman sculpted "Dramatic Art," which includes a bust of Shakespeare and a tragedian holding a book and dagger.

Superior Courtroom No. 2 is located immediately north of the Superior Courtroom No. 1, across a narrow hallway.

In addition to its judicial uses, the room formerly served as a small historical museum. The Daughters of the American Revolution stored china, glassware, furniture and brass items, culled from the collections of local pioneer families, in the courtroom. Their prized possession was an oil painting by Matthew Jouett of the county's namesake, Col. John Allen; the county commissioners purchased the portrait from one of Allen's relatives in Louisville, Ky. The painting now hangs in the building's original entryway off Calhoun Street.

Murals by Holloway, a gold-medal winner at the 1900 Paris Expo, and Piexotto have places of honor in Superior Courtroom No. 2 -- at the top of its Belgium black-and-gold scagliola walls. The artwork recounts significant events in the history of the Northwest Territory.

Piexotto's paintings on the south wall show Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne and his men overtaking Native Americans and Canadians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The battle took place during August 1797 near what is now Maumee, Ohio.

Holloway's mural on the north wall depicts Wayne negotiating the Treaty of Greenville (Ohio) with Little Turtle, leader of the Allied Indian Tribes. The treaty, signed just months after Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers, required the Native Americans to transfer large parcels of land to the whites and allowed for permanent white settlements in the area.

A second painting by Holloway, located on the east wall, recounts the daring horseback ride of William Olliver in 1812. This largely unsung hero left Gen. William Henry Harrison's stronghold in Piqua, Ohio, and galloped through enemy territory to Fort Wayne, where besieged soldiers waited for re-enforcements. Olliver delivered good news: Help was on the way.

More than 90 years after Piexotto and Holloway created the murals in Superior Courtroom No. 2, conservators Huston and Greene deemed much of the artwork unsalvageable. The amateur fixer-uppers had distorted features and altered colors when they repainted them in the 1940s, resulting in irreparable harm, Huston said.

The courthouse trust commissioned Greene's EverGreene Painting Studios in New York to replicate the original murals around the courtroom's 160-foot-long perimeter using the same style, composition and color palette. A team of artists studied the photographs of the original murals, researched painting techniques and period costumes, and examined colors in the existing murals. Before painting, EverGreene prepared a scaled layout, a color model and a full-sized mock-up for approval by the courthouse trust.

Barth's and Staak's bas-relief panels encircling Superior Courtroom No. 2 are like a pictorial Who's Who of early Allen County. The panels pay tribute to the county's founding fathers and significant events, including William Rockhill, James Wyman and Francis Comparet, members of the first Board of County Commissioners; former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Hugh McCulloch; Samuel Hanna, first judge of Allen County; and Gov. William Hendricks inaugurating the county's first sheriff, Allen Hamilton.

The reliefs also depict Fort Wayne's iron industry and construction of the Wabash and Erie Canal, which linked Lake Erie with the Mississippi River. The first boat to pass through Fort Wayne -- Capt. Asa Fairfield's "Indiana" -- is shown in the fourth panel on the north wall.

Superior Courtroom No. 3 is located north of Superior Courtroom No. 2, across the great open rotunda. Dark Tennessee and ivory Mexican onyx scagliola in shades of rose and ivory cover the walls up to an ornamental cornice near the ceiling. Cream-colored plaster bas-relief panels by Chicago artist M.J. Doner adorn the faux marble. Doner's sculptural works depict Native American residents in the land they called Kekionga. The scenes progress through stages of war and peace, from mounting tensions (a Native American war council and the capture and torture of white prisoners) to war (battle between Gen. Anthony Wayne and the Native Americans, and the burial of Little Turtle) to Indiana pastimes during peace (archery, canoeing and dancing) to peaceful co-existence between whites and Native Americans (smoking of the peace pipe, establishment of trading posts and welcome by Native Americans of the territory's first white woman).

The Circuit Courtroom -- at the far north end of the judiciary floor -- has walls covered in light sienna, Massachusetts green and red African scagliola up to the decorative cornice. The showpiece, however, is the 3-foot-high mural that encircles the room above the cornice. It was painted by Gutherz, a Washington, D.C., artist who created the murals in the Congressional Library in Washington. The Allen County Courthouse's murals were among his last works; he died in the early 1900s.

"Gutherz was an extremely spiritual man," and his religious beliefs are reflected in his paintings, Skoog said. Behind the judge's bench, Gutherz's mural shows Moses and Justinian presenting laws to their people. The Temple of Solomon and the dome of St. Sophia's Church rise in the background.

On the opposite wall, the murals convey Gutherz's belief that justice is divinely inspired and that the guilty must face final judgment before God. An angel holds a sign that commands, "Strive for justice." Surrounding cherubs attend to the judicial documents, thereby sealing the eternal destiny of the condemned.

The backdrop of the mural on an adjacent wall shows a town basking in peace, order and happiness; Justice flanked by two male angels looms in the foreground. The angel on the right brandishes a sword, defending Justice against a hoard of beasts that represent chaos and lawlessness. The angel on the left extends his hand, inviting law-abiding people to join Justice's righteous cause.

Additional painted figures -- representing judicial themes such as apprehending criminals, trial by jury, arbitration and protecting the vulnerable -- encircle the room.

They are "intended to portray ideas which connects them also to the end wall, thereby forming one continued whole in numerous parts," Gutherz wrote in an article published in The News in 1901.

The other highlights of the Circuit Courtroom are reliefs, again the work of sculptors Staak and Barth; two triangular pediments that symbolize the seasons; and a circular art-glass ceiling inset.

The relief panels depict the attributes of law; the faces of war; the byproducts of peace and the pursuits of prosperous times.

Spring and Summer, on the eastern pediment, are represented by a maiden amid cherubs, roses and doves and by a mother carrying corn stalks and wheat. On the western pediment, Fall and Winter are depicted, respectively, as a pheasant hunter and as an old man.

In 2001, EverGreene completed its longest-term project -- more than $5 million of contract work over seven years on the Allen County Courthouse's artwork, including that in the courtrooms.

It's unlikely the courtrooms will ever fall into such disrepair again, Skoog said. "Proper maintenance and regular cleaning are pretty much all that's needed for a long, long time."

Once again, there is order in the court.

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