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Buechner and Orth Courthouses


Fifty years ago the National Historic Preservation Act was created to help preserve the diverse archaeological and architectural treasures of America. Courthouses are often considered for historic preservation, and there is perhaps one type worthy of further discussion.

Between the years 1905 and 1919, thirteen county courthouses in North Dakota were designed by the St. Paul architectural firm of Buechner and Orth. One fourth of all county courthouses in the state were designed by this firm, forming a significant contribution to the state’s architectural history. The buildings combine elements of Greek and Roman architecture with a Renaissance flare. This created a neoclassical style linking the present to the golden era of the early European civilizations, a time when the legal system was created. It was meant to impress the visitor and provide a focal point for county government. The two-story buildings are distinct architectural contributions to their communities.

Charles Buechner was a surveyor and civil engineer born in Germany. He immigrated in 1874. After working for the railroad, he joined an architectural firm and later opened his own office in St. Paul in 1893. Upon the death of his first partner, he was joined by Henry Orth who had recently arrived from Norway. Adopting the Beaux Arts Neoclassical design, which originated in Paris, they designed over twenty-nine courthouses in the Upper Midwest.

Although the details of each courthouse vary, for most, the significant feature is a flat roof with a large, central tower topped with a metal dome. This dome served more as an adornment or cupola than a structural feature of the roof. The dome was decorated with round windows, while on the tower below, additional windows served as skylights.

The central pavilion or entrance was usually adorned by matching columns and ornate decorative features, although the Grand Forks County Courthouse is one exception. Ornate details enhanced the horizontal features of the buildings.

The interiors feature a two-story rotunda with arched openings leading to upper story hallways. Ornate moldings and columns adorn the walls. Murals depicting pioneer scenes occur on the upper walls or the rotunda. The Courtrooms were also often decorated with murals and wall stencils. The floors were usually terrazzo, a mosaic consisting of small pieces of marble or granite set in mortar and given a high polish. A complementing, sheriff’s residence and jail usually completed the Buechner and Orth designs. Spread across the state, these iconic buildings grace the skyline of North Dakota.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis

Source: National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form-Buechner & Orth Courthouses, State Historical Society of North Dakota, November 25, 1980