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History of the Oneida County Court Houses

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In 1801 Oneida County had two jails but no Courthouse. Court was held in a school house in the Village of Whitesboro. An act of the legislature in 1803 provided that the local Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions "shall hereafter be held alternately at Rome and Whitestown." The result was that Oneida County became a two shire County. The County began the construction of its two Courthouses but a lack of money halted construction until the legislature authorized a special tax levy.

The Courthouse in Whitesboro, still standing on the Villege green, was built in 1807 in the Federal style of architecture. The first Courthouse in Rome is believed to have been designed similar to the one in Whitestown. It was destroyed by fire in 1848.

In 1849 the County authorized the building of a new Courthouse and jail in Rome at a cost not to exceed $12,000. The Courthouse, depicted on the cover of this directory, was completed sometime after 1850 and is still in use. A two-story addition was added on the North James Street side to house County offices in 1896. In 1902 the porch was rebuilt and a dome added to permit light and ventilation to the upstairs courtroom.

Utica was incorporated as a city in 1832 and its growing population began to find it inconvenient because of lack of transportation to attend Court sessions in Whitesboro. In 1839 the legislature required that all Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions be held at the Academy in Utica which was a brick two story school building, used as such, erected on the easterly side of Chancellor Park with entrance on John Street. This act of the legislature in effect stripped Whitesboro as a half-shire bailiwick.

Utica school Commissioner James Watson Williams, in a lecture delivered in 1868, said of the Academy and Courthouse: "It was never commodious for its purpose, and was ill calculated to serve the double purpose it was destined to. Constables were required to stand guard during play hours to stifle urchins' shouts, while the scared silence of study hours was interrupted by the tread and turmoil of throngs of jurymen, witnesses, attorneys and judges; to say nothing of the pleasant grievance of being routed out of this or that recitation room to make way for the jurymen about to cast lots or toss coppers for verdicts."

Thus, the state legislature on March 17, 1851 authorized the County to appropriate the sum of $15,000 "for the purpose of building a Courthouse and jail in the City of Utica." The foundations were laid for a new Courthouse on John Street but the work was stopped by lack of funds. The legislature on April 12, 1852 authorized the appropriation of an additional $5,000 and construction was completed in 1853. The Courthouse was an imposing building. Four Corinthian pillars on the front and a cupola gave it a majestic appearance. It no longer stands.

The legislature on March 12, 1901 adopted a statute which created an independent board of commissioners to "cause to be erected, completed and furnished, ready for use, a suitable building, upon the site acquired, for the use of the County of Oneida, as a Courthouse and for other public purposes" in Utica. It also provided that the expense incurred "shall be borne and paid by the County of Oneida" and directed the County Board of supervisors to borrow "such sum of money as shall be sufficient to meet and pay all the expenditures". The Board of supervisors viewed this legislation as usurpation of its power and unconstitutional. Long litigation followed but the Court of Appeals upheld the statute and directed the Board to comply.

The building on the corner of Elizabeth and Charlotte Streets, depicted on the cover of this directory, was substantially completed in August 1908. It was of five stories and a basement. Stone stairs on the front of the building on Elizabeth Street led to the main entrance on the first floor. The basement entrance on Charlotte Street furnished easier access and the stairs were eliminated in 1957 having deteriorated as a result of weather.

Two courtrooms on the third floor were 65 by 45 feet and 22 feet high, the one on Mary Street side being for the County Court and the one on the Elizabeth Street side for the Supreme Court. The ceilings were lowered and the two rooms divided into four separate rooms in the 1960s.


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