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The Historic Riverside County Court House


Used by permission of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce    
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Riverside County entered the twentieth century on a wave of surging enthusiasm, prosperity and visionary enterprise.  As one of the geographically largest counties in the nation, it claimed a population of 25,000.  Its capital, Riverside, hosted 10,000 of those individuals.  By 1902, when the Board of Supervisors launched a competition for the design of a new Court House, Riverside, the capital of the county, stood as one of the wealthiest towns in California.  Engulfed in twenty thousand acres of navel orange groves, estimates placed the investments in Riverside groves, canal works, packing houses, and related citrus infrastructure at not less than $30, million.  The town’s agricultural wealth, and the vision of its inhabitants, could be seen in the newly rising monumental civic structures, craftsman homes, and impressive commercial buildings, such as the New Glenwood, California’s Mission Hotel.  By the end of this era, Riverside and Riverside County were known world-wide as embodiments of the California dream.

      Certainly, such vision undergirded the County Supervisors’ desire to create a lasting statement with the design and construction of their new Court House.  In late 1902, they chose the beaux-arts classical design of Burnham and Bliesner, Architects, Los Angeles, over proposals in the Mission and Italian Renaissance styles.  A wealthy and influential orange grower and packer, Ethan Allen Chase, helped convince the Supervisors to pick Burnham’s design over the Mission Style advocated by Frank A. Miller, Master of the New Glenwood Hotel (Mission Inn).  It opened for business in 1904, housing all the primary county government functions, as well as operating as the Court House.  While the city and County of Riverside continued their upward climb, the County Court House grew in prestige, destined to become one of the most architecturally important structures in California.


An Historical View

By Robert Fitch

      The genesis of Riverside County’s beautiful, historic Court House is related, in a fashion, to a proposed Court House in neighboring San Bernardino County.

      Prior to the establishment of Riverside County in 1893, the Western portion of what is now Riverside County was situated in San Bernardino County.  Among the issues that spawned a “secession” of approximately 600 square miles from the county to the north (the other 6,000 square miles of Riverside County were taken “with blessing” from San Diego County), were two failed attempts of the san Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to obtain voter approval to build a new Court House in San Bernardino.  As an alternative, the Supervisors voted to levy a direct tax to raise funds to remodel and expand the old court house, a levy which was based on a disproportionate increase in assessed values of property in the City of riverside and adjacent areas where a majority of voters had voted against the bonds.

      Compounded by other issues, the Court House tax prodded the Riverside leaders to move forward with their efforts to create Riverside County.  The California Legislature and Governor Markham obliged; and on May 2, 1893, the voters within the proposed county sealed the deal by overwhelmingly voting in favor of creating California’s 57th County.  Nine years later, more than 75% of the voters in Riverside County approved a bond issue to construct a new court house in Riverside.

      The architectural firm of Burnham and Bliesner of Los Angeles was selected to prepare the design of the Court House.  The firm had previously drawn the plans for Riverside’s Carnegie Library as well as the Charles Cressman and D.C. Twogood homes, in the Mission Style.  Partner Franklin Pierce Burnham’s motif for the Court House, however, was inspired by the French Beaux-Arts school, as exemplified in the Grand Palais and Petit Palais constructed for the 1900 Paris Exposition.  Riverside County’s Court House (particularly its colonnaded entrance) more closely resembles the Gran Palais; yet, the overall impression of the Petit Palais beats a distinct similarity.

      The cornerstone of the Court House was laid, with great fanfare, on Thursday, May 7, 1903, by the Grand Lodge of Masons of California, with the assistance of the Evergreen Masonic Lodge of Riverside, the Riverside Military Band, and Company M of the local National Guard.  May 7, was picked to coincide with the arrival of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was due in Riverside that evening on a campaign tour.  Construction of the Court House was completed on June 23, 1904, at a cost of $160,280.  during the celebration of Riverside County’s Centennial in 1993, the cornerstone was removed and the contents of a capsule laid therein was opened and displayed as part of a public ceremony.  The contents are not under the custodianship of the County Historical Commission.  A year later, a new capsule containing contemporary artifacts was placed in the floor just inside the main entrance of the Court House.  That capsule is to be removed at the time Riverside County celebrates its Bi-Centennial in the year 2093.

      Although the 1903 structure was (and always has been) called the “Court House,” the building at that time contained only one courtroom.  Most of the space served as offices for the other county departments, namely the Sheriff, District Attorney, County Clerk, Tax Collector, Assessor, Recorder, Superintendent of Schools, and others.  Over the years, the non-court related departments moved to other quarters in order to make room for additional courts.  A major addition to the Court House, designed by local architect, G. Stanley Wilson, was constructed in 1930. In 1995, the Board of Supervisors awarded a contract to Tilden-Coil Constructors, Inc., to renovate Riverside’s renowned Court House to meet current seismic stabilization requirements.  The $5 million project also included restoring the Ceremonial Courtroom to its original grandeur, and re-establishing the building to its rightful place among the State’s architectural treasures.  The historic Court House was dedicated on October 5, 1998 at 3:00 pm.  The public was invited and urged to attend this important event.

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This page was last updated on 16 July 2012 at 10:05 pm

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