Towering over Jersey City’s Hilltop neighborhood, the Hudson County Courthouse is a building many locals hope they never have to enter. But the hulking Beaux-Arts structure isn’t just home to plaintiffs and defendants; it’s a reminder of the city’s past and a symbol of what can happen when historical preservation is done right.
Originally designed by local architect Hugh Roberts all the way back in 1893, the six-story courthouse was built between 1906 and 1910 at a total cost of just over $3 million. New York City-based Wells Brothers presided over the construction, with the building’s interiors being handled by John Gill & Son of Cleveland, Ohio.
Granite taken from quarries in Maine was used extensively on the project, along with trimmed copper plates and bronze lanterns. Towering pillars, ornate balconies, and other architectural flourishes provide the building with a distinct dignity, which today could probably not be built at any price.
But the courthouse almost didn’t make it through the era of suburban flight when properties in cities, especially ones owned by the government, were seemingly under siege. By the late 1950s, the building had fallen into a state of disrepair and eventually closed in 1966 following the construction of a taller court facility across the street, leaving the courthouse vacant and, by some accounts, boarded up.
The Robert Moses, car-first mentality was spreading throughout the country and Jersey City officials were actually looking to tear down the courthouse following its closure to make room for more double-decker parking. But unlike New York Penn Station and countless other historic landmarks that were demolished during the era, the courthouse survived in large part due to the local community.
A group called the Citizens Committee of Hudson County lobbied hard for the building’s restoration during that time. The committee had an uphill battle at first and in 1969, the County Freeholders actually started accepting bids to tear down the courthouse. But in August of 1970, local architect Theodore Conrad successfully lobbied the federal government to place the building on the National Register of Historical Places, essentially saving the courthouse from the wrecking ball.
It was later lovingly restored throughout the 1970s and re-opened in 1985. The historical details of the property still shine through to this day, from the stained glass ceiling to the marble arches and columns that are omnipresent around the building. The courthouse also features murals on the building’s top floors and basement, which depict everything from Revolutionary War history to Jersey City’s turn-of-the-century streetscapes.
Shortly after reopening, the building was renamed the William J. Brennan Courthouse in 1988 to honor the Newark-born Supreme Court Justice. Considered one of the Court’s most influential members, he served for 34 years and authored several landmark legal decisions. Interestingly, Brennen was a Democrat but was actually appointed to the Court in 1956 by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
While those days of bipartisanship may be long gone, locals thankfully have a beautiful piece of history preserved right in the heart of Jersey City.