The Pre-Fire Cook County Courthouse and Chicago City Hall in Elmhurst, IL
Stereo Card of the Cook County Courthouse ruins after the October 1871 Fire,
Urns are just visible at the top of the building
By Ray Johnson
Only a piece of the building exists, but if you want to be able to touch a piece of pre-fire Chicago history you only have to travel to Wilder Park in the lovely near west suburb of Elmhurst. One of the decorative , stone, urn-like finials or capstones that adorned the top of the east and west wings of the combined Cook County Courthouse and Chicago City Hall now sits at the southwest corner of the park.
Pre-Fire history of the Cook County Courthouse and Chicago City Hall.
The first court house was erected in 1835 at the southwest corner of N. Clark and W. Randolph Streets and was only a single story with a basement. The second court house was built at the northwest corner of N. Clark and W. Washington Streets in 1848. The building was designed by famed architect John M. Van Osdel and was also only a single story. In 1853 the first combined Court House and City Hall was built on the same block and was also designed by Van Osdel. This building started out two stories high and a third story was added in 1858. The original cost of the two story building was $110,000 and the walls were faced with grey marble taken from the Lockport, New York quarries. Two additional wings (east and west sides) were added to the building after the civil war and the bell at the top of the court house is the one that sounded the alarm during the Great Fire until the building itself was consumed. The capstone that exists at Wilder Park was from one of the two wings.
Making its way from the ruins of the Great Chicago Fire to the quiet unincorporated area of Elmhurst, IL
Wilder Mansion or Seth Wadhams’ “White Birch” alongside Wilder Park
It was the original builder of “White Birch”, Seth Wadhams, who was the wealthy souvenir hunter who arranged for two of the capstones from the Cook County Courthouse to be removed from the post-fire ruins and brought to his estate.
One of those capstones now sits at the southwest corner of Wilder Park very near The Wilder Mansion or Seth Wadham’s “White Birch”. It is adorned with a simple marker that was placed there by the Elmhurst Bicentennial Commission and the Martha Ibbetson Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It reads simply, “Elmhurst Landmark 1870, Urn-Adorned Cook County Court House before Chicago Fire of 1871”
Capstone with marker at Wilder Park, Elmhurst, IL
Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy, Architecture in Old Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1941.
Elmhurst Historical Museum, Elmhurst: Origin of Names, Streets, Schools, Parks, and Landmarks, Elmhurst: Elmhurst Historical Museum, 1980.
Randall, Frank A., History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago, Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Ruins after the great fire of Oct. 1871, Chicago - Courthouse : Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA (Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-57059)
Ray Johnson is a former criminal investigator with the West Chicago Police Department and is a life-long fan of Chicago history, legends and folklore. He currently runs a genealogical and historic research business at http://www.historycop.com and has lectured and taught classes on conducting historical research. He is currently the Chicago Area Representative for the Association of Professional Genealogists. His passion for the legends, folklore and haunts of the Windy City prompted him to write a book on the subject which was published in July 2011 by Schiffer Publishing Limited and is entitled, “Chicago’s Haunt Detective”. He maintains a web presence for the ghostly side of Chicago history at http://www.hauntdetective.com and can also be reached on
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