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Pinal County Courthouse
Built in 1891, this upright brick courthouse has a monumentality that lent gravitas to the Arizona Territory’s sixth county, Pinal, formed in 1875. Its architectural exuberance reflects the optimism of the Victorian era in America, as an increasing number of settlers headed west, following the Gila Trail through the county seat of Florence to seek their fortunes in California’s gold fields. Florence’s own economic prosperity became a reality in 1875, when silver was discovered in the mountains 35 miles northeast of town, leading to the development of the rich Silver King Mine. Florence became an important supply and shipping center for the mines and the area’s agriculture industry.
The first Pinal County Courthouse (still standing in McFarland State Park) was built in 1877–1878. This adobe structure with a pitched and wood shingled roof designed in the so-called Sonoran Transitional Style was replaced, primarily, because it appeared inadequately modest to a community with an optimistic view of its future. When the railroad arrived in central and southern Arizona in the 1880s, it brought new construction materials and techniques as well as builders knowledgeable about Eastern, Midwestern, and Californian building traditions. Adobe and traditional Sonoran building forms suddenly seemed outdated and even primitive when compared with contemporary brick and highly ornamented edifices. When Florence’s first brickyard opened in 1886, local builders had the material they needed to update their practices. Using compact masonry rather than traditional adobe allowed for the better incorporation of segmental-arched windows and doorways, timber construction roofs, prefabricated components, and elaborate detailing consistent with the Italianate and Second Empire styles.
The designer of Pinal County’s second courthouse was Canadian-born James Miller Creighton (1856–1946), who had some formal training as an architect and 12 years professional experience in the building trades before he established a practice in Arizona, where he was regarded as one of the territory’s premier architects. His projects included Old Main, the first building on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson (1887); the first Adams hotel in Phoenix (1896); the U.S. Custom House in Nogales (1889); and the Dominion Hotel in Globe (1905).
Creighton designed the Second Pinal County Courthouse as a Latin cross, with a modified rotunda over the transept and an apse defining the building’s east side, at the cross’s foot. The brick courthouse is capped with a metal mansard roof punctuated by an ornate, centralized cupola. The sheet metal window lintels and dormers have scrolling patterns and decorative bosses; on the paired windows that flank the main entrance they are surmounted by shallow, shell-like ornaments. The entry porch repeats many of these motifs. The courthouse contained offices for the county assessor, recorder, treasurer, and supervisors, as well as the large, second-floor courtroom with the jail below it. Interior features included a grand, redwood staircase occupying a considerable portion of the first and second levels; pressed-metal ceilings; wainscoting and hardwood floors; and a judge’s bench and jury box. Wood-burning stoves provided heating and kerosene lights the illumination. Sanitary facilities were originally located outside the building. By the time the courthouse opened on February 2, 1891, the 15,300-square-foot structure had cost $34,765, including $5,765 for the construction of the jail.
Time literally stands still on the courthouse cupola: because funds ran short during construction, county supervisors cut costs by having clock faces painted on the cupola (they read 11:44) rather than installing actual timepieces. There are other decorative deceptions as well: an artist painted the trompe l’oeil curtains on the cupola windows.
Several additions have significantly altered the form and functionality of the courthouse, giving the building its current rectangular configuration. In a 1917 expansion by the Phoenix architectural firm of Lescher and Kibbey, the courthouse’s northwest and southwest corners were filled in with two-story additions, converting its plan from a cross into a T-shape. The northeast corner was filled in with a single-story addition in 1933. The rooms that now form the one-story north facade were added in 1975. Six years later, a one-story addition filled in the southwest corner, and an air conditioner enclosure was added to the original south wall. Unfortunately, newer bricks on the west wall addition do not exactly match the originals, while those in later additions differ even further and some are even painted. However, the building’s original detailing was faithfully copied in later additions, reinforcing the courthouse’s original Victorian-era character.
Florence’s leaders in the 1880s and 1890s were overly optimistic in projecting the town’s growth. Instead of producing fabulous wealth as residents had hoped, the local silver mines dried up. Once the railroad arrived in Phoenix and Tucson, turning those outposts into boomtowns, newcomers began bypassing Florence altogether. Even the weather seemed to be against the town, as alternating droughts and floods made once-thriving agriculture problematic. Florence’s dominant industry today is penal: the town caters to the needs of between 8,000 and 10,000 prisoners inhabiting the nearby state-run and privately-operated prisons; agriculture ranks second and tourism, third.
Despite the town’s economic travails, Florence’s leadership has always considered the second courthouse an irreplaceable landmark—even after all of its original functions were transferred to a new courthouse building in 2004. In 2012, Swan Architects undertook a thorough rehabilitation of the building that also added ADA-compliant sidewalks, buried new utilities underground, provided a mechanical yard, and installed irrigation systems for the maintenance of the landscape. The courthouse even received new signage. The restored building now houses county offices including Pinal County Board of Supervisors, the Clerk of the Board, the Budget Department, the Office of Internal Audit, and the Communications Office. A conference room used by the Board of Supervisors occupies the main floor.
“1891 Courthouse Renovation Project.” Pinal County. Accessed January 6, 2015. http://pinalcountyaz.gov/.
The Associated Press. “Historic courthouse in Pinal open again after $6M face-lift.” Arizona Daily Star, December 25, 2012.
Patterson, Ann, and Mark Vinson. Landmark Buildings: Arizona’s Architectural Heritage.Phoenix: Arizona Highways, 2004.
University Relations – Communications. “The Story of Old Main's Original Architect.” UA News. Accessed December 12, 2015. https://uanews.arizona.edu/.
Wilson, Marjorie H., “Pinal County Courthouse (Second),” Pinal County, Arizona. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1977. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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