Some of the oldest courthouses in New England have had revolutionaries argue cases in them. Patriots, heroes and traitors walked within their walls.
One of the oldest courthouses served as the seat of state government. One was built to replace a building burned by the British. One was once a tavern.
As places where disputes are argued and settled, courthouses have always been central to the civic life of the region.
Here are the six of the oldest courthouses in New England, one in each state. If you know of a historic old courthouse, please share it with us in the comments section.
New London County Courthouse
The New London County Courthouse was built from 1784-86 to replace the courthouse burned by the British during the American Revolution. It was an ambitious and expensive building for its time and place. Designed by Isaac Fitch of Lebanon, Conn., it was also used as town hall during its early years. Originally it sat at the head of State Street, but in 1839 it was moved to 70 Huntington Street. It is not only the oldest courthouse in Connecticut, but one of the oldest courthouses that continuously operates in America.
Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, Marquis de Lafayette and Horace Greeley spoke at the New London County Courthouse.
For more information, click here.
The Pownalborough Courthouse in Dresden, Maine, dates to 1761. Located at 23 Courthouse Road in Dresden, It is the only courthouse that remains from Maine’s colonial era.
The town of Dresden was named Pownalborough after Massachusetts governor Thomas Pownall. The court was established when Lincoln County separated from neighboring York. The building was designed by Boston architect Gershom Flagg and was visited by Benedict Arnold, Robert Treat Paine and John Adams, who tried cases there.
In addition to serving as a courthouse, the building also housed a tavern – as many early courthouses did. Adams’ trip there, though arduous, helped him build his practice, and he maintained fond memories of Pownalborough.
“I am sorry that the name of Pownalborough has been changed to that of Dresden,” he wrote, “that of a virtuous and sensible man to that of a scene of frivolity. Pownall was a Whig, a friend of liberty, a lover of his country, and he considered North America part of his country as much as England, Scotland, or Ireland.”
The courthouse today is maintained by the Lincoln County Historical Society and is open in the summer months as a museum. For more information, click here.
Plymouth Old County Courthouse
Known as Plymouth Old County Courthouse or the Old Town House, the oldest courthouse in Massachusetts was built in 1749. It is believed to be the oldest wooden courthouse in the United States. It stands on 4 Town Square, the site of the courthouse built in 1620 by the Plymouth Colony settlers. Another courthouse had been built in 1670, and parts of it may have been used in the Old Town House.
Like the New London County Courthouse, it was originally used as a courthouse and town hall. It was built by Peter Oliver, a Loyalist and brother of Andrew Oliver, the tax stamp administrator who was hanged in effigy by the Sons of Liberty. From 1820, when the town built a new courthouse, to the early 1950s, it was used for town offices.
The building was later restored and opened as the 1749 Court House and Museum. It is free to the public and open during the summer. Nearby are the Burial Hill cemetery, The First Parish Church, Brewster Gardens and Leyden Street, which was laid out by the Pilgrims. For more information, click here.
Old Grafton County Courthouse
The Old Grafton County Courthouse located at 1 Court Street in Plymouth, N.H., can claim roots dating at least to 1774.
It was used as a meeting house during the Revolution and later a library and a wheelwright shop. Its most famous moment came in 1805 when it was the site of Daniel Webster’s first court pleading.
Today the building has been restored, and it is maintained as a museum of the Plymouth Historical Society. It’s open for visitors during the summer. The building is not in its original location, however, as it was moved in 1823 when its service as a courthouse ended. For more information, click here.
Kent County Courthouse
The Kent County Courthouse in East Greenwich, R.I., was built in 1804-05 to replace the courthouse built in 1750, when Kent County was split off from Providence County.
The courthouse was used by the Rhode Island Legislature, which sat in each county seat on a rotating schedule until 1854. Then, only the buildings in Providence and Newport were used. The Rhode Island State House was built in 1901, and the courthouse was turned over to Kent County. In 1908, an architectural firm gutted the building and rebuilt the interior, which was common during the Colonial Revival. For years it was used as a town hall. Today the courthouse is used by probate court, which makes it the oldest active courthouse in Rhode Island.
Windham County Courthouse
The Windham County Courthouse in Newfane, Vt. dates to 1825, when it was built as a simple, boxy structure to carry out court business. Additions in 1853 and 1907 gave the courthouse its current Greek Revival appearance, with a porch and massive Doric columns.
The courthouse replaced the Westminster Courthouse, which dated to 1707 and was the site of the 1775 Westminster Massacre and was, in 1777, the location where Vermonters met to declare their independence.
The building is still an active courthouse. It can be found on the Newfane Green. For more information, click here.
Photos: New London County Courthouse, by By Beyond My Ken – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29628529; Old Plymouth County Courthouse by Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002605