Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Wayne County Courthouse

The Wayne County Courthouse, now called the “Old Wayne County Building,” was constructed from 1897 to 1902, in Detroit, the county seat. The Wayne County Board of Supervisors wanted a larger home for the county’s court and other departments. With five floors and a 247-foot tower, the building stands on Randolph Street at the eastern end of Cadillac Square and was meant to complement old City Hall (demolished in 1961) at the opposite end of the square. Occupying an entire block, extending 255 feet along the front and back, and 175 feet on the sides, the building is an architectural masterpiece erected out of copper, granite, and stone. Designed by architect John Scott, it was called “the most sumptuous building in Michigan,” by architecture historian Hawkins Ferry. 

Thanks to several preservation and renovation efforts, the Wayne County Courthouse still exists as a stunning example of Roman Baroque architecture, with a blend of Beaux-Arts, and some elements of the neo-classical architectural style. Among the most commanding details of the building, above and flanking the Randolph portico, are the two heroic four-horse chariots representing Victory and Progress. The copper quadrigas, as the statues are called, were removed, restored and reinstalled in 2009. They are the work of New York sculptor J. Massey Rhind, as are the four figures adorning the corners of the tower parapet, representing Law, Commerce, Agriculture and Mechanics. Inside were 18 courtrooms and 145 additional rooms, rich with mahogany, oak and marble, with mosaics on floors and the vaulted ceiling entrance on Randolph, one of four entrances. 

The Courthouse served as the center of Wayne County government for more than half of the 20th century, holding most of its offices, court sessions, and public hearings. Roads Commissioner Henry Ford reported to work at the courthouse in 1906, and in 1926, Clarence Darrow used one of the courtrooms to defend a play that had been charged with obscenity. However, in 1955 most government functions moved to the new City-County Building (renamed the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center) and the Courthouse began to deteriorate due to neglect.

Wayne County considered demolishing the building in the 1970s, but a private partnership worked to restore it during the 1980s, allowing the newly renovated courthouse to reopen in late 1987 as a model for preservation in Detroit. The county leased the building from the partnership but by 2007 the Wayne County Commission was fed up with the cost of renting the monumental structure and the ongoing repairs. The county purchased the Guardian Building on the west side of downtown and began moving 500 of its workers there. 

In 2014 the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, was sold to New York investors who completed a seven-million-dollar restoration with the goal of selling the building to a sole tenant.



Wayne County Courthouse postcard, 1900s - 2011.036.243

Black and white photo of the Wayne County Building, c.1973 – 2010.033.347

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