To be sure, she looks pretty good for 200 years…
In the heart of a town’s center, deep in the very bowels of an abandoned gem, Plymouth’s 1820 Courthouse has secrets to share…
We met with Bill Keohan, of The Community Preservation Committee, to tour the Federalist-era building and its additions.
Plymouth is building a new Town Hall.
To make space, the original courthouse will remain, but two of the later additions behind it are slated for razing.
Our goal was to save some of the historic elements of the additions before work began. While some of our salvage may end up in the new town hall, they will at the very least spared the dumpster.
As we entered the abandoned buildings, there was a vague sense of oppression.
Maybe it was the empty halls and offices, the apocalyptic ambiance of a building vacated for a decade, combined with recent news and pandemic fears.
Maybe it was the layered angst of centuries of the accused and the guilty who once roamed these hallways–or were held in their cells.
Regardless, we jumped to work while the light was good.
Several quarter-sawn oak doors graced the 1884 addition to The Courthouse-
We carefully removed these well-made and gorgeous doors-
and queued them up for storage.
The addition also boasted marble floors. We wrested these up with flatbars, gently coaxing each stone out of its mortar bed. We only broke a couple.
The marble tiles were laid with such precision in the lime mortar, you couldn’t squeeze a credit card between them.
And though the tiles originally came off the gangsaw with varying thicknesses, the floor itself was dead level.
Each tile was custom fit.
Several pieces bore marks on their underside; some were clearly location marks, though others were more cryptic:
Perhaps they will find a home in the new Town Hall.
We took a couple of detours amid our labors to better understand the history and stories held captive in these old walls…
The 1884 addition was home to a jail.
And fashion was chronicled on the women’s room doors in the 1960’s courthouse addition–a boxy, institutional Eisenhower-esque building, as Bill called it.
Downstairs, an iron door was painted to look like wood. The detail was exceptional.
Our walkabout also led us to the adjacent former County Treasurer’s Office, now used for storage. The basement of this building was Plymouth’s closest cousin to a catacomb. It was dark, dank, foreboding, and not without interest. Some people are drawn to the cobwebs and dark places. There’s history there.
At one end, we saw a “white oven”, with its separate coal-fueled combustion chamber. Paula Marcoux, food historian and author of Cooking with Fire, found this of particular interest.
Prison rations were likely baked here, as there were no shortage of jail cells in these abandoned buildings-
Back upstairs, we took a peek at some old evidence which, perhaps, had once been the focus of attention among 12 jurors-
From a distance, the pictures were almost amusing; at the very least they brought about a sense of nostalgia.
On top of the pile on their way to storage were some even older documents-
Someone bought a sickly goat which died and they wanted to be reimbursed with a cow…or something, said Bill.
But some evidence was utterly infused with creep, and filled our imagination with the horror of a crime which may have been:
Our day’s work done, and before the afternoon’s light faded, we crept upstairs to the attic and cupola of the original courthouse.
The building’s ventilation system was as simple as it was aesthetically pleasing.
This grate allowed fresh air into the main courtroom-
The faces of the carrying beams bore evidence of the not-quite perpendicular marks of a sash-saw.
Due to their length, however, there was no way they could have been sawn in The Hatch Mill we are currently restoring. Old Decker’s mill can only take 12-footers.
Sap was still bleeding from the timbers:
There was plenty of reading material, if your tastes run to 1000-page legislative documents and 19th-century directories.
And if you’ve ever wondered what the less-public rear of blind justice in an alcove (see picture at top of post) looks like, here ’tis:
We were momentarily blinded by the light as we ascended into the courthouse cupola-
…where we had a breathtakingly unique view of downtown Plymouth and the harbor beyond-
For several moments, we stood in the light, high above the ghosts of the judged and the condemned.
This is what Justice would see if she was shed of her blindfold.
But she must remain blind, even as she shares two centuries of stories with those who see.