The 1839 Courthouse
Greek Revival buildings, like the 1839 Courthouse, emulated the architecture of ancient Greece, which Americans admired as the birthplace of democracy. The white marble Greek temples inspired the large columns, triangular pediment and white paint on Berrien County's temple of justice.
Completed in 1839, Berrien County's Greek Revival-style courthouse was designed by local architect Gilbert B. Avery. Circuit court convened for the first session in the new building in April 1839, Judge Epaphroditus Ransom of Kalamazoo presiding. The defendant, Robert White of Niles, stood accused of stealing a pair of boots, socks, and mittens with a total value of ten dollars. White was convicted and sentenced to a year in the state penitentiary.
In addition to the principals in a case, many citizens attended court days as a form of entertainment, taking in the drama of the legal proceedings. The courtroom was almost completely a male-oriented space, with spittoons scattered among the benches to catch the jets of tobacco juice from the mouths of spectators. In addition to serving as the judicial center for the county, the courthouse functioned as a community center, hosting political rallies, weddings, funerals, lectures and plays.
After completion of the new courthouse in St. Joseph in 1896, the Berrien Springs courthouse saw use as a community center, dance hall and militia drill hall. In the early 1900s, buildings on the square served as the first campus for nearby Andrew's University. In 1917, the courthouse became the local Seventh-Day Adventist Church. By the mid-1960s the entire complex was in poor condition. Some people considered demolishing the unoccupied courthouse after the village church relocated to a new building.
In 1967, representatives of local history groups throughout Berrien County organized to save the courthouse and restore it as a county museum. They formed the Berrien County Historical Association as a private nonprofit corporation to care for the buildings on the square and to interpret county history.
Today, the BCHA manages Courthouse Square for the County of Berrien, which owns the buildings and grounds. As a county-owned building, the 1839 Courthouse is registered as an officially active Michigan courthouse, although now used mostly for ceremonial functions.
The BCHA completed its first restoration of the courthouse in the 1970s. Unfortunately, in 1989, lightning struck the building and fire severely damaged the its northwest corner. The removal of debris after the fire revealed construction details in the courtroom hidden for more than a century. They provided the basis for a much improved restoration of the space.
Today the courtroom appears much as it did in 1839. Most furniture items in the building are reproductions. The large table in the hallway is original to the courthouse square and possibly served as a jury table. Attorneys occupied the table in the middle of the room in front of the judge's bench.
In keeping with its long tradition of public service the courthouse remains the focus of much community activity including plays, concerts, and weddings. The first floor also houses an exhibit area on Berrien County history.