The red brick and sandstone Richardsonian Romanesque courthouse stands conspicuously in courthouse square on the highest ground in the city. A clock tower rises majestically from its roof. Next to it once stood the county jail and sheriff's residence, erected in 1882–1883.
The first county buildings in Grand Traverse County were built on land donated by Hannah, Lay and Company, three years after the county was organized in 1851. A fire destroyed them in 1862, and the county offices were housed in temporary quarters until this courthouse was constructed. The Grand Traverse County Board of Supervisors chose plans drafted by Rush, Bowman and Rush of Grand Rapids, who designed at the same time a nearly identical stone courthouse for Cass County in Cassopolis in southwestern Michigan. A disagreement over costs between the board of supervisors and the architect and contractor delayed construction of the Grand Traverse courthouse for one year. The board dismissed the Grand Rapids firm and called in Cassius M. Prall (b. 1845) of Pontiac and Traverse City to supervise construction. Known as “a practical builder and contractor of unquestioned integrity,” he was working on the construction of buildings at Northern Michigan Asylum ( GT8).
In 1979–1981, after a new city-county governmental center was built nearby, the courthouse was renovated for use as district and circuit courts.