The Kansas City branch of the Jackson County Courthouse was established in 1872. The current building was constructed in 1934 under Presiding Judge and future president Harry Truman. The ornate, Art Deco building was one of several structures built during the 1930s as part of a “Ten Year Plan” to sustain economic growth and provide employment in Kansas City during the Great Depression. Today the building primarily houses facilities for both municipal court and the Missouri 16th Judicial Circuit Court.
Circuit Court traces its origins back to 1826 when it was established as the
First Judicial Circuit Court. At first its jurisdiction included half of the
State of Missouri, but now only comprises Jackson County. The first courthouse
was built in Independence, the Jackson County seat, in 1827. By the 1870s the
rapid growth of Kansas City made it necessary to open a branch of the
courthouse there to accommodate the increasing demand for court business. In
1872 an unfinished hotel building was purchased on Second and Main Streets and
converted into Kansas City’s first courthouse. A tornado badly damaged the
courthouse in 1886, creating the need for a new one. A replacement courthouse
was built at Fifth and Oak Streets in 1892. By the 1920s it had become too
small to suit the city’s needs, and also posed a fire hazard.
In 1926 future
president Harry S. Truman was elected Presiding Judge of Jackson County, a
position he would hold for the next eight years before he was elected to the
U.S. Senate. During his judgeship, Truman supported the construction of a new,
larger courthouse in Kansas City. In 1931 voters overwhelmingly approved a $40
million bond to pay for what was known as the “Ten Year Plan.” The plan called
for the improvement of infrastructure and the construction of several new
public buildings. Meant to boost the city’s economy during the Great
Depression, the program provided employment to everyone from construction
workers to architects. $4 million was set aside for the Jackson County
Courthouse. Other public buildings created under the project included the Municipal
Auditorium and City Hall.
Truman was reported to
have traveled across the country, examining various courthouses to find an
ideal design for Kansas City. He took a liking to the courthouse in Caddo Parish,
Louisiana, and sought to have Kansas City’s courthouse styled similar to it. The
architectural firms of Wight & Wight, Keene & Simpson, and Frederick C.
Gunn each worked on the structure, designing it in the Art Deco style. The
limestone-clad building contained fourteen floors and featured very detailed
ornamentation both on the inside and outside. Examples include exterior friezes
depicting Contentment, Peace, Mercy, and Law; interior medallions depicting
Progress, Authority, Faith, Justice, and Aspiration; marble columnns, and metal
plaques. A statue of President Andrew Jackson, the county namesake, was sculpted
by Charles Keck and placed in front of the building. The courthouse was
dedicated in a ceremony on December 27, 1934 with Harry Truman presiding. When
it first opened the courthouse contained county government offices, courts,
overnight accommodations for jurors, the county jail, and an execution chamber.
Kansas City’s Jackson
County Courthouse remains in operation today, and is the seat for the majority
of the 16th Circuit Court’s judges. In the early 1980s, renovations
to update the courthouse resulted in asbestos being dispersed around the
building and exposed to the public. The exposure and threat of asbestos-related
diseases such as mesothelioma led to a class-action lawsuit being filed against
Jackson County and U.S. Engineering, the company in charge of the renovations, in
2010. An $80 million settlement was agreed to in 2016. The courthouse underwent
another series of renovations in 2005, this time to redevelop the landscape and
repair the exterior.