Finished in 1851, the Ocean County Courthouse still stands today as a reminder of Ocean County's long and fascinating history.
Now part of a larger judicial complex, the courthouse remains the focal point of the area facing towards Washington Street.
The Legislature Act which set off Ocean County from the southern half of
Monmouth County on February 15, 1850 was created after an appeal from Joel
Haywood, a pioneer Stafford Township resident. Haywood complained that the
citizens south of the Manasquan River were not receiving their fair share of
funding for roads, bridges and welfare for its poor.
Toms River was selected the new county seat of government over Lakehurst
by a one vote margin.
The new governing body of Ocean County conducted their organizational
meeting on May 8,1850 at the Tavern of Thomas P. Barkalow, located on the
corner of Main and Water Streets in Toms River. Colonel Samuel C. Durham, the
local dock master, was chosen to be the first director from among the body of
twelve freeholders. Each of the six townships selected two representatives to the
Freeholder Board. (Stafford, Dover, Jackson, Plumsted, Union and Brick.)
While the new Freeholder board was conducting monthly meetings, which
began at 8 a.m. and sometimes lasted for two to three days, consideration was
being given to determine where the new Courthouse would be built. Several lots
in the Village of Toms River were offered by interested citizens, but the one
chosen was a lot on the center of my lands on the north side of the road from the
meeting house to the Schenck's Mill Road, a cornfield on what is now
Washington Street. It was offered by Joseph Coward who was so pleased when
his site was selected that he presented the Board with 6,000 bricks to start the
The design of the Greek Revival-style Courthouse reflected the mid nineteenth
century interests in classical architecture which was built from the architectural
plans borrowed from Hudson County. With its tall Doric columnns supporting a
massive pedimented portico, the Courthouse is an excellent example of the temple
form that was the most distinguishing feature of the Greek Revival style.
The new Courthouse began to take form with the bricks shipped from
Haverstraw, New York by schooners and unloaded at Robbins Cove at the foot of
Allen Street. Teams of horses pulled the wagon loads of brick up the hill to the
new building site. The building was finished in September 1851 so that all of the
official business of the County could be conducted in one building.
While the construction was going on, the freeholders continued to meet in the
Thomas P. Barkalow House (later the Ocean House) and at the Riverside Hotel
across the street.
After the Courthouse construction was completed, the Hudson County
architectural plans were entrusted to a local man to be returned to that county. He
did not get too for out of town on horseback before he stopped off at Hyers
Tavern in Jackson. The plans have never been seen since.
The official county seals were selected at their first meeting. The County
Freeholders' seal was a sloop, the County Clerk's seal was a schooner and the
Surrogate's seal was a steam boat. These seals reflected the commercial interest of
the citizens enclosing the words Ocean County, N.J.
The old cornfield, where the courthouse was built in the center of what later
became a city block, is now bounded by Horner Street, Hooper Avenue, and
Hooper Avenue was just a narrow dirt lane to Cedar Grove and the Metedeconk
in 1850. Thomas Hooper, a local Toms River merchant, felt so strongly the the
town was now going to expand eastward that he used his own money to widen
the Metedeconk Road. He was honored by having the road bear his name.
Washington Street, at that time, was called the Meeting House Road. The old
Methodist Meeting House stood in the cemetery at the crossroads of the two
The Meeting House Road had only extended to Dock Street; its name was
changed to Washington Street in the 1870s for Washington Hadley who built his
mansion at what is now known as The Mott Place at Dock and Washington
The first County Courts were held in the old Mormon-Church which was
located at the triangular point formed by Flint Boulevard and South Main Street
on the south side of the river. Governor Daniel Haines had appointed James
Gulick, as the first Judge of the Court on Common Pleas in Ocean County. Other
officials appointed by the Governor were Joseph Parker, Sheriff, John J. Irons,
County Clerk, and David I. C. Rogers as Surrogate. The first Supreme Court
Justice to sit in the new Courthouse was James C. Nevins.
The second floor in the new Courthouse housed the Courtroom which seated
250 persons on plain straight - backed benches. The judge's bench of carved
black walnut was on a raised dais behind the walnut rail which separated the
bench from the spectators.
The 1872 extension of the Courtroom in back of the judge's bench called a
Grecian bend, with an overhead domed skylight, brought a more Victorian look
to the Greek Revival style 1850 Courthouse. It is believed that it was at that time
that the use of dark wood and elaborate ceiling carvings of birds, cupids and
ribbons were added in the French Rococo period of the late Victorian period.
A costly fire in the Grecian bend on October 26,1929 destroyed the judge's
bench and furniture, charred the seats and woodwork and damaged the
courtroom with smoke. The fire broke through the skylight which caused a draft
that fueled the fire, but the local firemen were able to contain the fire to the
Courtroom, thus saving the Courthouse.
This large Court Room, located in the most impressive building in town, has
been used for many community, civic and religious functions other than the
courts. During the Civil War, this room was the scene of Union recruiting rallies.
Company F. Fourteenth New Jersey Volunteers, under the Command of Captain
Ralph B. Gowdy, was organized in this room. Military drills were conducted on
the lawn in front of the Courthouse steps.
As the village expanded during the building boom of the 1850s the
Courthouse became surrounded by homes. The Gulicks, Havens, Van Hise and
the Van Nostrands were some of the famous who lived in the block. In 1853 the
Methodist Church built a church on the northeast corner of the block, at the
corner of Hooper Avenue and Washington Street. That church stood until 1874
when the congregation built another church across the street. All of these
homesite eventually became part of the Courthouse Complex as the County
began to expand and the need for additional governmental facilities became
necessary for its efficient operation.
The Sheriff's House, with ten attached jail cells, was built behind the
Courthouse by Robert Aitken for $4250 in 1851 in the Federal/Greek Revival
style. The Sheriffs and their families occupied this building for over 75 years. In
1921 twenty-four new jail cells were added in a wing at the rear of the
Until 1926, family functions and social affairs were held in the living
quarters of the Sheriff's House, which occupied the front section of the
building, while prisoners were incarcerated in the cells attached to the
back of the house. Those first ten cells were nine feet long, nine feet
high and five feet wide. Each cell had a cot behind iron doors. A
corridor divided the cells with men and women fraternizing there during
the daytime hours, but locked in separate cells at night. In the first
two decades of the jail there were rarely more than two prisoners
confined at one time with an annual average of about twelve prisoners.
No prison records were kept until 1860 when Sheriff Charles Wardell began
compiling them. His records show the crime cost the County about $1,000
per year. The sheriff's wife cooked the meals for the prisoners which the
sheriff carried through the connecting door of the living quarters to the
prisoners in the jail. The County paid the sheriff fifty cents for each
meal fed to the prisoners.
The old bell, housed in the cupola on top of the building, was used by
the Sheriff to alert the Village when there was a prisoner escape. This
bell is now in the belfry of the Cedar Grove Methodist Church on Bay
Avenue and Cedar Grove Road.
The old wooden portion of the Warden's house and several cells were torn
down in August, 1921. The Freeholders hired the Pauley Jail Company of
St. Louis, Missouri, at a cost of $75,000, to build twenty-eight cells
attached to the old jail, fourteen cells on each tier. These cells had
running water and a toilet.
The County began to show signs of population growth after World War I and
the need for an additional Court Room became apparent. A new Hall of
Records, to house the County Clerk in the first floor, a Court Room and
law library on the second floor, was built in 1926 at cost of $55,805.42.
An alley was created between the two buildings with a bridge connecting
the upper floors of the original Court Room to the new Court Room.
The County showed little population growth during the depression years of
the 1930s. World Was II brought officers to the area from the Naval Air
Station at Lakehurst and Fort Dix. After the war many returned to live
here permanently. By 1950 the County population began to expand.
In 1954, when the Garden State Parkway was completed and new housing
developments began to sprawl about in the County and new citizens began
to flock to the County from the cities, this second jail of 1921 could no
longer accommodate the increasing crime rate. In 1940 we had a County
population of 36,706. The demands for additional facilities became
apparent as the County population expanded to 56,622 in 1950. In 1958
there were 98,300 citizens.
In 1950 the first of two additions were made to the west wing of the
original Courthouse called the West Wing. The County Clerk's Office
occupies this addition while the Surrogate and Small Claims Courts occupy
the 1974 second expansion of this West Wing.
The 1926 Clerk's Hall of Records was torn down to make way for the 1950
East Wing expansion. In 1965 Hankin & Hyers, Architects, designed four
new court rooms which were added to the 1950s section of the East Wing,
New Judges were added to the Courts as the population growth propelled
the County into a new era.
In 1961 an additional jail expansion added a capacity for 110 inmates
which was used in conjunction with the 1921 wing of the old Sheriff's
House. The Probation and Sheriff's Department were also located in this
addition located behind the 1950 East Wing addition.
This 1961 jail addition still did not meet the court and jail
needs of the County since the population was increasing by 100,000
each decade. It had reached 346,038 by 1980. In 1985 the fourth
jail to be built in the County along with seven new courtrooms
were added in a new facility called the Justice Complex.
The new jail, with 196 cells, was built to the north of the
Courthouse, incorporating the old Sheriff's Street and former
home sites in its building site.
The Courthouse Annex was built on the east side of Hooper Avenue,
opposite the Courthouse in 1959 to house the Board of Election and
the new voting machines which replaced the paper ballots. These
machines were removed in the early 1970s and stored elsewhere.
The first and second floors of the building then become the
headquarters for the Planning Board, Road Department and the
The Courthouse became so crowded by the 1970s, when the County
population had grown by an additional 100,000 in the decade of
the 60's and had reached 208,470, that a new facility was required
to house the Board of Freeholders and the administrative division
of the County The Administration Building was built in 1973 on
the east side of Hooper Avenue, opposite the East Wing of the