In the rivalry between Sparta and neighboring Tomah, Sparta often seemed to have the upper hand. It sat on a swath of fertile, silty soil and obtained good water power from the La Crosse River. It also had excellent transportation links—originally a crossroads, which lured the first permanent settlers in the early 1850s, then two railroads, the first arriving in 1858 and the second in 1873. Road and rail access made Sparta a center for processing and shipping produce from the surrounding farm region, whether the crops were wheat and hops in the decade after the Civil War or dairy products and berries toward the turn of the twentieth century. Sparta even boasted artesian springs, which drew tourists in the 1870s and 1880s. None of this kept Tomah from battling tirelessly for the county seat, an honor that could spell the difference between a bustling city and a sleepy hamlet. Sparta became the temporary seat with Monroe County’s cre-ation in 1854, won permanent status in 1863, and built a brick courthouse in 1865. Still Tomah’s boosters battled on until the 1890s, when this handsome red-sandstone courthouse opened, and Tomah admitted defeat.
Dominating the square and the buildings around it, the courthouse is in the then-popular Romanesque Revival style. Chicago-based Bell was a former supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C., and had overseen the design of Romanesque Revival federal buildings in the late 1880s. Here, he created a three-story symmetrical structure with a projecting gabled pavilion at center and hipped-roofed pavilions at each end. Only the use of round-arched rather than rectangular windows at the east end of the third floor—where the courtroom is located—interrupts the symmetry of the design. The entrance features a one-story Corinthian portico with both wooden and polished-granite columns. Behind it, the central pavilion is garnished with foliated panels and pierced by a round-arched arcade in the gable. The crowning element is a pyramidal-roofed belvedere, with round turrets anchoring each corner. Both belvedere and turrets are clad in metal, stamped to mimic stone.