When one visits the Perry County Courthouse in Pinckneyville, a fair question to ask might be: “So, when was this place built?”
A fair question, perhaps, but one that is easier asked than answered.
The answer, to get it out of the way, is: “Well, that depends.” The route to this answer involves a very generous reading of the law by (who else?) the local legal community.
The building in question represents the third courthouse in Pinckneyville. It was begun in 1850 to replace a smaller structure that had been built in 1837. The new building cost $7,500 to build, an enormous sum (adjusted for inflation, that would be around $1.7 million dollars today).
By 1877, the county officials, judges, lawyers, clerks, and other denizens of the courthouse decided that the building was too small again. A bond referendum was held and overwhelmingly rejected by the voters.
County Board Chairman John Baird wasn’t about to let a little thing like the will of the people stand in the way of his new courthouse, so they took a look at the county statute book. What they saw, or more to the point, what they read into it, assured that the new courthouse would be theirs.
The statute claimed that a new courthouse couldn’t be built without a referendum. It said nothing about renovating an existing building. The most promising thing for the pro-courthouse side? The term “renovating” was not defined in the statute.
You’ve already guessed what they did, right? They proceeded to “renovate” the old courthouse by dismantling it down to the foundation. A new building was then built on top of the old foundation. Since the foundation was not disturbed, what they did was technically (kinda, sorta, almost) legal.
Only two years later, in 1879, the tortured logic continued when they added an “addition” to the courthouse. Since it wasn’t an entirely new courthouse, but an addition to the “renovated” version, again they didn’t seek a referendum for the expenditure, which topped out at $11,742.
Renovations happened again in the 1930s, but under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, thus not needing the sort of legal acrobatics that got the courthouse built (or renovated or whatever) in 1877-1879.
Still the legal center of Perry County today, the courthouse’s history provides an interesting case study in, ahem, creatively reading the law. It wasn’t broken, but the bend in it could be mistaken for the decorative ironwork of the stair rails.
Associated Press, “Perry County Courthouse has murky history,” NWI Times, May 23, 2003, http://www.nwitimes.com/uncategorized/perry-county-courthouse-has-murky-history/article_6840bb59-e4c5-5be0-9024-e48ce14a3dfc.html
“Images for Perry County, Illinois,” Courthouse History, http://courthousehistory.com/gallery/states/illinois/counties/perry