Chittenden County Courthouse.

By Connie Cain Ramsey

 Courtesy Special Collections, University of Vermont   This 1910 hand colored photo shows; to the right, the redstone courthouse that served Chittenden County for over one hundred years. To its left is the present marble courthouse, formerly the U. S. Post Office and Customs House.

Courtesy Special Collections, University of Vermont


This 1910 hand colored photo shows; to the right, the redstone courthouse that served
Chittenden County for over one hundred years. To its left is the present marble
courthouse, formerly the U. S. Post Office and Customs House.

 

Chittenden County Courthouse.

Disorder in the Court


In 1971, the Chittenden County Courthouse was as much a fossil as the fossils
embedded in the Isle La Motte blue-grey stone that trimmed the classic Redstone block
walls of the century-old Burlington landmark.


But the sturdy exterior masked the decay inside. Only two floors were usable,
and the third, with bedrooms for sequestered jurors, had neither heat nor water. To add
to its troubles, the city of Burlington had demanded a “fire and wire” upgrade estimated
at $115,000. Even more importantly, the county had simply outgrown its courthouse
space.


Deputy Clerk Cashman
Takes the Reins

At that time, Attorney Ed Cashman, a recent Vietnam veteran, was offered the position
of Deputy County Clerk of Chittenden County where he served for a year before
becoming the County Clerk in 1973. (He later become a State’s Attorney and a Vermont
Superior Court Judge.)


Shortly after accepting, Cashman saw the need to solve the problem of a
crumbling courthouse. He became the major catalyst in bringing together a committee
to work towards a plan to usher in a new County Courthouse.


The effort would take over three and a half years of ups and downs, but
eventually Ed Cashman and his committee would prevail.


Act 230 – Courting
a New Courthouse


Chittenden County contracted a Boston law firm to write a bulletproof bill mandating a
new courthouse search to be introduced to the 1972 state legislature. The result was
Act 230.


After its passing, a thirteen-member committee, headed by then Probate Judge
L. John Cain, was formed to proceed with the search. Judge Cashman fondly remembers
the committee minority members whom he felt did the heavy lifting, including: C. Harry
Behny, head of the Chamber of Commerce; Attorneys James Murdoch, John Dinse, and
John Fitzpatrick; and his own father-in-law, former Superior Court Judge and Supreme
Court Justice Harold Sylvester.


The committee considered several replacement options, eventually focusing on
the former Customs House and Post Office next door to the County Courthouse on Main
Street. It was under-utilized and in need of repair, but had the potential to be converted
to a new courthouse. It could be renovated at $27 per square foot versus $45 per
square foot for a new building. Not only did the old post office building have parking and
room to grow, it was a strikingly beautiful marble building designed by James Knox
Taylor, the architect of the U.S. Treasury building in Washington, D.C.


Members of the committee, including Cashman, county Bar Association
President David Jenkins and T. Wesley Grady of the Planning Committee, took a trip to
Bangor, Maine, in Penobscot County (a city similar in size to Burlington), noted for its
experience in renovating and repurposing old buildings for public use. They toured the
Bangor City Hall, a former federal building, and the District Courthouse, formerly an A &
P grocery store. All renovations had been contracted out to local firms. The members of
the committee returned to Vermont convinced that working with the government to
renovate the old customs house and post office was the best plan.


The Rocky Road to
Raising Revenue.

To move forward, the committee requested a bond issuance of 1.4 million dollars to be
presented to Chittenden County voters in 1973. It failed to pass. A confluence of
negative situations in the eyes of the voters combined to defeat the bond.


First of all, some Chittenden County towns were soured by a Grand List tax levied
annually to raise funds for County Courthouse and Sheriff’s Department operations’
expenses. The tax was flexible, averaging under .5 cents per year, with a ceiling of 5
cents. Although legally mandated by the State, the towns felt that they should have a
say in any increase, citing that the tax was “undemocratic,” and calling for lawyers to
fund the new courthouse. “Do doctors pay for hospitals,” was the Courthouse
Committee’s response.


Secondly, the proposal to renovate the old Customs House and Post Office had a
very high-profile critic – Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Larrow (who went on to
become a Vermont Supreme Court Justice).


Larrow argued that the committee had been “peddling misinformation through
the use of inaccurate press releases” (although no press release had been issued), and
complained that the committee had failed to look at alternate locations (although five
alternates had been made public). He called the proposed new courthouse a “white
elephant,” saying: “at 32,000 square feet it was too big for a courthouse.” Then State’s
Attorney Patrick Leahy responded that all unused space would be rented out.


However, in 1974, the committee reintroduced the bond issue and found much
less opposition. Through a series of well-received town meeting presentations by
County Clerk Cashman and the committee, and with an endorsement from the Free
Press, Chittenden County voters approved the bond issue. Once the bonds hit the
Boston Bond Exchange, they sold out in 30 seconds.


More Conference Rooms
Than Courtrooms


In 1974, the federal government moved out of the old customs house and post office.
The future tenants were left with a building with burst pipes and a flooded basement.


The Courthouse Committee went to work on a layout designed for judges,
lawyers and jury members. There would be more conference rooms than courtrooms
because it was felt that most cases were settled in conference rooms. Plans included a
third-floor law library and a comfortable lawyers lounge on the second floor. To avoid a
battle of the pecking order for office spaces, the most prime space on the second and
third floors, the southwest corners, were converted into public restrooms.


Construction management of the renovation was awarded to local construction
firm Wright & Morrissey who had bought the former James E. Cashman Construction
Company, the builders of Burlington City Hall, Memorial Auditorium and the Burlington
Breakwater (James Cashman turned out to be a distant relative of Ed Cashman).

 

No Dome, but the Red
Marble Fireplaces remain


Plans to remove all of the Vermont Red Marble fireplaces were scrapped, and thankfully
they remain a beautiful tribute to the architecture of earlier times. Looking back, Judge
Cashman admits to some design shortcomings. Some judges wanted reclining chairs on
the bench, but there was no room behind them, and the benches had already been
fastened into the 18-inch thick cement floors.


Another Judge Cashman regret is that money ran out before a roof dome could
be constructed on top of the courthouse. This dome had been proposed in the original
building plans in 1907, but ironically, the federal government’s appropriation of funds
also ran out before it could be built. The twice nearly completed dome frame is still
visible in the courthouse attic.

 

Chittenden County’s past courthouses.

1. The First Courthouse is Built in the Center of City Hall Park in 1797.


The county's first court session was held in 1788 at the home of war hero Ira Allen,
(where The Winooski Block stands today), in a section of Colchester called Winooski
Falls (which later became the city of Winooski). Colchester was declared the county's
“Shire Town”.


Two years later, in 1790, Burlington was named the new Shire Town of Chittenden
County, and court was held at Gideon King's Tavern. That building is still standing at 35
King Street.


By 1797, the citizens of Chittenden County felt the need for a courthouse solely dedicated
to the ministrations of justice. The first courthouse was built in the center of Courthouse
Square (now City Hall Park) and served the county until 1801.


2. The Second Courthouse was built in 1801, on the west side of Church Street,
where City Hall is now.


The first courthouse was razed just four years after its construction to make way for a
facility large enough to also host the Vermont State legislature (who subsequently moved
to Montpelier in 1805). A fire destroyed this courthouse in 1828 and it was promptly
replaced in the same spot by a third courthouse.


3. The Third Courthouse was built in 1828 in the same spot as the second.

4. The Fourth Courthouse was built in 1872, further down Church Street on the east
side.


This Vermont courthouse was made out of cut and hammered Redstone and trimmed in
blue-grey Isle La Motte stone. This courthouse served Chittenden County for over 100
years. It was placed on the National Historical Registry in 1972, and was lost in a tragic
fire in 1982. The land now serves as a parking lot for the current courthouse.

Bob Boyd and Jack Ramsey contributed to this chronicle.