Thursday, December 12, 2019

Justice Statue Has Eyes Open

© Glenn Franco Simmons.

by Glenn Franco Simmons

One of the most-impressive buildings in Virginia City, Nev., is the ornate — by Wild West standards — Storey County Courthouse at 26 South B. St.

Located near the equally historic Piper's Opera House, the courthouse is an impressive structure that must have magnificent views of Virginia City northward, from its second-story windows. Whether standing inside or outside the courthouse, which features a jail and courtroom, it is easy to imagine the destinies of lives forever changed in this building.

The National Park Service's "Three Historic Nevada Cities" series features historically important information about Carson City, Reno and Virginia City.

"The Storey County Courthouse was built in the high Italianate style that embodies 19th-century ideals of decorative opulence as well as law and order," according to the NPS."

It replaced the first courthouse, which was destroyed the catastrophic Virginia City Great Fire of October 1875.

"Reconstruction began in 1876 and the present building, designed by the San Francisco architectural firm of Kenitzer and Raun and built by contractor Peter Burke, was completed in February 1877," according to the NPS. "The total cost of construction, including fixtures and the jail, was $117,000, a remarkable sum even for the Comstock boom years."

It even features a memorable and iconic sculpture.

© Glenn Franco Simmons.

"A life-sized figure of Justice stands as sentry at the entrance, but she is not blindfolded, a rare occurrence in our national symbology," according to the NPS.

The Comstock Historical Marker (No. 8) that is located outside the courthouse (at the time this photo was taken) states that "over the years, a legend has evolved that she {Justice} was one of only a few created not blindfolded."

"The courthouse's statue of Justice is the only one to grace the exterior of a Nevada building," according to OnlineNevada. "The full-sized, zinc figure came from New York and cost $236, including shipping. Local folklore maintains it is one of two or three in the nation without a blindfold, presumably because the Wild West needed Justice to pursue crime vigorously. In fact, Justice with eyes exposed was a common option in the nineteenth century, and over twenty examples survive throughout the country."

In Virginia City, all enforcement had to have its eyes wide open because it was the epitome of Wild West skulduggery.

"The fa├žade of the building was decorated with elaborate ironwork, painted contrasting colors, and a pediment that included the date of construction, 1876, also the national centennial," the NPS states.

The NPS also said the Storey County Courthouse is the most opulent of all Nevada courthouses built in the late 19th century.

© Glenn Franco Simmons.

"Far exceeding the cost of its counterparts, the building served the state's richest community," the NPS states. "Ironically, the county built the courthouse at a time when the boom economy of Virginia City was on the verge of collapse. Perhaps due to the inevitability of a downturn, local leaders rebuilt their town following the devastating 1875 fire in grand style.

"The Storey County Courthouse remains a vivid example of this community's rebirth in the face of economic decline. A portion of its restoration was funded through a grant from the National Park Service's Historic Preservation Fund."

It is a building that needs to continue to be kept up because of its historical significance as not only a courthouse, but also a jail.

"Storey County's two-story Italianate structure includes a two-tier jail, a spacious courtroom, and large iron-sheathed vaults for records," according to OnlineNevada. "Electrified during The {Great} Depression, the courtroom features Art Deco style light fixtures. The building is one of two 19th-century courthouses (the other being in Eureka) still serving local government."

According to another Comstock Historical Marker (No. 17) outside the courthouse, "This two-story jail was completed in 1877, and featured 10 individual cells, each of which had bunkbeds and 'state-of-the-art' plumbing for the day."

Men and women were jailed there.

"Women were housed on the second level and men on the first floor until 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that males and females could not occupy the same facility without being physically separated," according to the marker. "There was heavy wire mesh strung between the posts of the second level to prevent falls and mingling of the inmates.

"The jail operated continuously from 1877 until September of 1986, when the county's insurance carrier decided it was unwise to operate it with only one fire exit in the event of a fire. Inmates were then housed at the Carson City Sheriff's Jail, for a fee, until the current jail was opened in 1992 on the outskirts of town on Truck Route, SR341."

Security was built into the jail.

"The walls of the jail were covered in boiler plate, after a successful escape in 1897 by an alleged murderer who had worked on the building as a bricklayer," according to the marker. "'Red Mike' Langan knew the walls had not been properly filled with rubble material as required and was able to dig his way out and escape. The county went to great expense to see that this did not happen again."

The marker makes no mention of Mr. Langan being caught, and I have not been able to determine if he was re-imprisoned.

"The doors of the jail were built by C.F. Nutting of San Francisco, the same company that supplied the vaults in the rest of the courthouse," the marker notes. "The stone floors are made of 'Kate's Peak Andesite," a very dense and heavy granite which was quarried from the hills a short distance to the east of Virginia City."

© Glenn Franco Simmons.

© Glenn Franco Simmons.

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