BLOOMINGTON - Much like the bones of a venerated saint that are dispersed to cathedrals and holy sites, architectural relics of the fire-ravaged 1868 McLean County Courthouse were scattered to various public spaces around Bloomington.
The still-standing "old" courthouse, which opened in 1903 and today is the McLean County Museum of History, is actually the county's fourth courthouse. Its predecessor, the subject of this article, was lost in the great downtown fire of June 19, 1900.
The architect of the doomed third courthouse was Alfred Piquenard, a Frenchman who came to the United States to help establish a utopian socialist colony. Once that project collapsed, Piquenard remained in the United States.
During his career, he served as the principal architect for several noteworthy buildings, including the David Davis Mansion and the statehouses of Illinois and Iowa.
On that hot and windy June night more than 100 years ago, as flames engulfed commercial buildings on the north and west sides of the square, embers ignited sparrows' nests atop the courthouse roof. Flames then reached the wooden rafters, and the courthouse burned from the inside out.
Fortunately, the interior and exterior walls remained standing, allowing workers to carefully dismantle what was left of the ruined structure. Much of the architectural ornamentation, and the brick and stone, found its way into new buildings and public works projects.
For instance, on display at several Bloomington locations are surviving capitals, the architectural term for the tops of columns. Carved from limestone, two of these oversized relics can be found in the Dimmitt's Grove neighborhood east of downtown. One sits at the southeast corner of Grove and McLean streets and the other at the southwest corner of Washington and Evans. A third capital can be found at the Emerson Street entrance to White Place.
Miller Park is home to a majority of the third courthouse remnants. The Summit Street bridge (pictured here) at the park's eastern edge features four pilasters, the fancy architectural term for a flat column attached to a wall. Unlike regular columns, pilasters serve an ornamental as opposed to a load-bearing function. The bridge's infilling stonework, contrary to stubborn local tradition, did not come from the courthouse.
Dome served as cage at zoo
The most distinctive remnant at Miller Park, though, is the dome's framework. Two months after the fire, the iron ribs of the dome were brought to Miller Park and reassembled. It was then covered with a wire screen to serve as a "cage" for zoo animals.
At one point, city workers moved the dome to a small island in the park's man-made lake, where it became a habitat for monkeys. Many longtime locals will no doubt remember "Monkey Island." Though the island is gone, the dome remains a cherished feature of Miller Park, and now stands east of the pavilion, minus the chattering monkeys, of course.
Monkey Island is not the only gone-but-not-forgotten Miller Park attraction with ties to the third courthouse. The zoo's long-dismantled bear den featured salvaged columns as "bookends" to its outdoor cages. Curiously, these columns were reassembled out of order, with the columns placed atop the Corinthian capitals, producing a jarring effect, architecturally speaking.
Another capital rests next to a tree at the park's Morris Avenue entrance. Over the decades, the base of this tree has grown around the capital, confirming once again the cruel inevitability of nature's triumph over the works of man.
During that terrible night of June 19, 1900, flames engulfed the wooden dome that held the courthouse bell. The 2,900-pound bronze bell then crashed through the building's rotunda, embedding itself into the basement floor.
Happily, the county salvaged the bell, and it was eventually reinstalled in the fourth courthouse. Today, the bell tolls on the hour and half hour, a melodious reminder that Alfred Piquenard's 1868 courthouse is still with us.