June 18, 2017

The Complete "Lost History" of the Yavapai County Courthouse

The reasons why Yavapai County needed a new, third, (and current) courthouse seemed endless. First, the Old Courthouse had become too small for the growing county. Added to that was this stunning list of deficiencies:

  • "The (old) courthouse tower was so badly out of plumb that the fire bells tolled regularly during wind storms." (*1)
  • The inferior sandstone chosen for the front stairway had crumbled into a rocky, sandy, slippery ramp. (*2)
  • Simply using the interior stairs "caused the floor and the walls to move to and fro" like "a glass of jelly." This was so acute that whenever anyone climbed or descended the stairway, the desk clerk would have to pause his writing! (*3)
  • A recent addition was already becoming "detached from the old building." Daylight was pouring through several gaps. (*4)
  • The roof was leaking with the potential of destroying important records. (*3)
  • One headline related: "COURTHOUSE FLUE IS READY TO FALL: Wide Crevice in Brick Structure Plainly Discernible From Ground to the Eaves of Roof." Pedestrians were warned to stay clear. (*5)
  • Yavapai Magazine revealed the embarrassment that: "It is unsanitary and reeks with foul smells!" (*6)
  • "If it should catch fire, practically all the (irreplaceable county) records would be destroyed since the building does not even approach being fireproof." (*6)
  • Indeed, it was a deadly firetrap: "Practically no exit for escape (exists) except by jumping from the top story windows to the ground, forty feet below." (*7)

The Old Courthouse with its added flue
on the right of the building.
In short, the Old Courthouse had become a living wreck. When it finally closed forever at 9 pm on February 26th, 1916, someone tacked a poignant note to the door reading: "She was a good old house in her younger days, but she's 'all in' now." (*8)

However, the road to building the current courthouse was both bumpy and winding.

Sticker Shock:
"Planning for the new courthouse began in earnest in 1915 when a nationwide contest brought in some 23 plans from architects in a dozen major cities." A budget was set at $250,000 for a 4-story, fire-proof, turn-key ready courthouse. (*8)

However, when bids were opened April 12th, 1916, hopes for a new structure were nearly dashed. The lowest bid for general construction alone was $217,864 by Rogers & Ashton, with erection and equipment pushing the bill to $300,000. (*9) This would not do.

As a result, "the (county) supervisors went over the specifications for the building carefully, crossed out certain materials and equipment that were not absolutely necessary and (with these subtractions,) Rogers & Ashton...agreed to do the general construction work alone for $180,000." (*10)

Biography of one of the most colorful men to reside in Prescott, Arizona: Buckey O'Neill.

The Courthouse Wouldn't Stand-Up In Court:
All of this whittling down of the price-tag raised legal problems, however. When the trimmed-down contract was handed over for review by the county attorney's office, they declared it to be illegal. The action was in violation of Title 40 of the civil code and this "new" bid was not taken in competition. It was insisted by the attorney's office that all bids be refused and re-advertisement be made for new bids. (*11)

However, the County Board of Supervisors completely ignored the advice and signed the contract anyway. (*11) The legal argument made by the attorney's office was clear, straight-forward and well publicized. Yet, so universal was the desire for a larger, fire-proof, fresher-smelling courthouse, that no one ever challenged the matter in court!

Yavapai County would be getting her new courthouse after all.

After the contract to build the new courthouse was signed, preparatory work began immediately.

The Cornerstone:
Of special interest and care was the building's cornerstone. A date of October 19th, 1916 was set for the laying of the cornerstone to coincide with the opening of the Fourth Annual Northern Arizona Fair. (*12) The mayor declared a holiday and all businesses closed for the festivities. (*13)

Special care was taken in picking out the cornerstone. "The piece (was) 4.6 x 3 x 3 feet and is said to to the finest product in that family, exceeding in quality the famed Gunnison granite of Colorado." (*13)

"It is native granite, or strictly speaking, the 'Prescott Granodiorite' that was intruded some 1.7 billion years ago." (*14)

Masonic Ties:
Like many civic buildings across the country, the cornerstone was placed in a Masonic ceremony. "All of the grand lodge members of the Free and Accepted Masons of Arizona (convened) in the Masonic Temple at 9:30 am" for the 10 am service. Nearly every Mason in the area came to see the rare and momentous ceremony. (*15)

Rare, grainy photo of the Cornerstone laying ceremony,

A large crowd turned out to witness the impressive festivity. "Following a prayer by the grand chaplain, (the) chairman of the board of supervisors welcomed the Masonic order and bade them begin the ceremonies." These mysterious rituals were performed by the Grand Master of the state. After a signal was given and the cornerstone was lowered into place, the Masons "christened it with corn, oil and wine." (*15)

This ceremony was reenacted by the Masons on its 100th anniversary in 2016.

The Hidden Time Capsule:
Before the cornerstone was sealed, a time capsule was placed inside. "All institutions, public officials and, in fact, every organization interested in Yavapai county have filed...records to be sealed and buried in the cornerstone. This packet will not be opened for at least a century, or until such time as Yavapai county will again need a courthouse." (*13) A century later would be October 19th, 2016.

A Yavapai Magazine article goes into further detail about what's inside: "In a copper box," (most appropriate,) "which was embedded in a hollow of the cornerstone, were records of the various local institutions that will be very interesting to those who may look over the same when Yavapai county needs a new courthouse in 50 or 100 years from now. Among the records were the last three issues of Yavapai Magazine. These issues will be of special interest since they tell of the organization of the Northern Arizona Fair and give pictures of the men active in its management. There are also pictures of the high school boys and girls of Prescott and the beginning of Prescott's Granite Quarry. The full page article that tells why Yavapai county wants Tom Campbell for governor and the picture of the big candidate will also unquestionably prove of great interest." (*16)

The story of Morris Goldwater and his oversight of the early development of Prescott.

However, the time capsule was not opened as scheduled. The 2016 Board of Supervisors looked into the cost of removing the time capsule from both the interior and exterior. It was found that costs would be high and there was worry about damage to the integrity of the building itself. As a result, it was decided that given the choice between opening it now (a century later,) and opening it when the county has the need for a new one; the Board of Supervisors chose the latter. 

It was a noble decision to "reinvest" this time capsule to a future generation who would undoubtedly appreciate its contents far more than we.

Once the cornerstone was laid, the massive construction of the new Courthouse began in earnest.

Under the contract, the courthouse was supposed to be finished by the end of 1917.  Although the builders stated that it would be finished "long before that time," it was not completed until 1918. (*17)

The Down-Payment for the Next Courthouse Might Be Underneath the Current One:
As preparatory digging was underway to make room for the foundation and several feet of overburden was removed, flecks of gold were found mixed in the underlying dirt.  It seams our city's founders unwittingly plotted out Prescott's downtown over an ancient and rich placer gold field! (*18)

Out of curiosity, this pay-dirt was assayed at a whopping $40 a ton. That would be approximately two ounces of gold hiding in just one bulldozer scoop! In today's market, a single 5-gallon bucket of this pay-dirt would net $40. (*18)

When citizens found this out, they thought it appropriate for the seat of Yavapai County to be located over a placer gold field (since the discovery of gold in the area brought rise to the city in the first place.) (*18)

As far as can be determined, the breadth and depth of this gold field has never been fully ascertained. However, if the old Capital Hill, just east of the Courthouse, were the ancient bank of Granite Creek, then it's fairly probable that the entire Downtown District may be sitting on this exceedingly rich gold field!

The Granite Came From Miller Valley:
The granite for the Courthouse was quarried locally at the Larkin Quarry, just west and north of Rock Lane off of Gail Gardner Way. Additional stone was provided from a quarry adjacent to the Granite Mountain Middle School. (*18)

Preparatory operations to extract the granite were extensive. These included a "large line of power machinery, derricks, erecting shops and buildings for employees." (*19)

Expert masons from Scotland were brought in to handle the detailed work. (*18)

Preparing granite for the
Yavapai County Courthouse.
It turned out that this native stone made exceptional building material. First, 40 to 50 ton blocks were cleaved off the quarry wall without using explosives. This was accomplished by drilling "3 inch holes at intervals of six inches along the line that the rock is to be cut. A splitting wedge, technically termed a 'plug and feathers' is then inserted into each hole. The feathers are small side pieces of steel. The plug is a small wedge inserted in each hole." (*20)

"A workman drives each wedge into these holes and by striking the plugs, one after another, in regular order, again and again, is able to bring even pressure to bear upon the granite so it finally cleaves along the line marked out by the holes." (*20)

Then the rough-cut stones are lifted out of the quarry and taken to finishing sheds using a narrow gauge tram. (*20)

"Here, each rock is shaped according to the plan provided the workmen and is either surfaced with a bush hammer driven by compressed air or else is finished with a mallet and chisel." (*20)

Every stone was formed to exact specifications. Someday, if and when the Courthouse is torn down, demolishers will discover that every stone has an individual number painted on it to identify where it would be placed during the construction. (*18)

When the finished stones arrived at the Courthouse Square, they were quickly laid into their proper position. (*19)

Rogers and Ashton, contractors for the quarry, were proud of their product. "It is a free working granite and is remarkably tough," Ashton said. "It cleaves easily and evenly and remains remarkably true (in its evenness of color.)" (*20)

Over 25,000 cubic yards of granite would be extracted for the Courthouse. (*17)

Yavapai County Fortress:
In building a fireproof structure, the people of Yavapai County erected a near fortress that should survive remarkably well in her arid environment.

Many area Native American ruins consist of simple stone and mortar and have stood for nearly a thousand years.

The Yavapai County Courthouse, on the other hand, is constructed of reinforced concrete walls and floors, encapsulated with 57,000 tons of solid granite! How long might that last?

As long as the roof is kept in good order, it would take a violent earthquake or a meteor strike to bring the Courthouse down!

To us, the Courthouse is an antique, but taking the perspective of the building's own lifetime, she's just now emerging from adolescence. Undoubtedly, the "Belle of the Downtown Ball" has bones sufficient to become a very old lady, indeed.

Tourist Tips:

Downtown Prescott is both beautiful and historic. A descriptive walking tour has been created that is both entertaining and instructive.

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(*1) Arizona Journal-Miner 6/4/1908 Pg. 1 col. 4 (bottom)
(*2) Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner 1/16/1895 Pg. 3 Col. 2
(*3) Prescott Journal-Miner 4/20/1913 Pg. 4 col. 4
(*4) Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner 2/21/1894 Pg. 3 col. 1
(*5) Prescott Journal-Miner 11/6/1913 Pg. 5 col. 1
(*6) Yavapai Magazine; July, 1914 pg. 8 col. 2
(*7) Prescott Journal-Miner 10/9/1913 Pg. 1 col. 5 (top)
(*8) Prescott Courier; 2/28/1975. "Westward" insert, pg. 2 ff
(*9) Prescott Journal-Miner 4/13/1916 pg. 3 col. 4
(*10) Prescott Journal-Miner 4/16/1916 Pg. 1 Col. 4
(*11) Prescott Journal-Miner 4/21/1916 Pg. 1 col. 1
(*12) Prescott Journal-Miner 8/25/1916 Pg. 3 col. 5
(*13) Prescott Journal-Miner 10/19/1916 Pg. 3 col. 5
(*14) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical File: Yavapai County Courthouse. A walking tour guide of the geology in downtown buildings.
(*15) Prescott Journal-Miner 10/20/1916 Pg. 3 col. 7
(*16) Yavapai Magazine. November, 1916; Pg. 5, col. 2
(*17) Prescott Journal-Miner; 8/6/1916, pg. 3 col. 1
(*18) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Vertical File: Yavapai County Courthouse.
(*19) Prescott Journal-Miner: 8/10/1916, pg. 3 col. 4
(*20) Yavapai Magazine; February, 1917, pg. 7, cols. 1 & 2.


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