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Cottonwood County Courthouse adorned with renaissance art

Wisconsin-based decorator Odin Oyen created this copy of "Justice," which hung in the Palace of Justice in Paris, for the Cottonwood County courtroom. It is made in the Italian Renaissance style with French Gold Leaf Bronze detailing. (Photo by KARLA AMBROSE)1 / 5
At the Cottonwood County Courthouse. (Photo by KARLA AMBROSE)2 / 5
Mural at the Cottonwood County Courthouse, stating "When tongue and pen alike are free safe from all foes dwells liberty." (Photo by KARLA AMBROSE)3 / 5
The scales of justice at the Cottonwood County Courthouse. (Photo by KARLA AMBROSE)4 / 5
The exterior of the Cottonwood County Courthouse, located in Windom. (Karla Ambrose)5 / 5

WINDOM -- Like many courthouses, the Cottonwood County Courthouse is known as a place for justice. But the historic building also contains the Palace of Justice, along with many other unique art pieces.

Visitors to the fourth and current courthouse, which was also placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1977, will see Italian Renaissance frescos above their heads and terrazzo tile designs below their feet.

But one of the courthouse's most formidable features is a statue of Themis, the goddess of justice, or "Lady Justice," as the locals call her. For more than 100 years she has stood atop the building's copper dome, blindfolded, with scales in her left hand and a sword in her right -- though justice was nearly in jeopardy in 1976.

The skylight that was formerly in the center of the rotunda dome "leaked all the time," said Cottonwood County Historical Society volunteer Marilyn Wahl.

"That's why it had to be taken out," she explained. "Lady Justice stood on top of that, and if they hadn't caught that when they did (the statue) would probably have come crashing through."

That year, the skylight that had earlier been damaged by lightning was replaced by a commemorative bicentennial seal, designed and cast by sculptor A.J. Brioschi.

The third-graders who come from all over the county for tours are especially impressed by the statue's size: the 12-foot, 200-pound statue is made of solid sheet copper and cost only $350 to create in October 1905.

The courthouse itself was commissioned in 1903, with J.B. Nelson of North Mankato being hired as the contractor in 1904 at a bid price of $59,949.

Ecclesiastical decorator Odin J. Oyen, of La Crosse, Wis., was hired to do the interior decorating at a cost of $2,900. Oyen, a specialist in decoration, mirror embossing and tapestries, created a replica of the painting "Justice" that hangs in the Palace of Justice in Paris, France. The painting was highlighted with French Gold Leaf Bronze and hung in the courtroom.

"It was reproduced because it was beautiful, in an Italian Renaissance style; I think that's why he chose that particular painting to be there," said Wahl.

The courtroom was painted red and green, two colors that were carried throughout the building's design.

"Those are common colors in Greek and Roman art," Wahl explained.

An Indian was also painted on the wall of the Farmer's Room in the courthouse's lower level, but was later removed because it was considered to be in poor taste.

Part of the decorating contract was sublet to Chicago-area fresco artists L.A. Thiel and Company. Using a type of paint later called calcimine, the artists painted four semicircular murals in the rotunda dome. The murals were titled "Government," "Justice," "Freedom of the Press" and "Freedom of Religion."

The corners were painted with the seals of the United State and State of Minnesota, with the surrounding areas being painted red and green.

Wahl said Oyen had as many as 25 artisans working with him on the building's décor, which was completed in August 1905.

According to a pamphlet of the courthouse's history, art and architecture compiled by county employee Karla Ambrose, "The lower section of the rotunda was (gray Tennessee) marble and the upper section was painted to simulate marble. The decorator used a small brush and a feather to imitate the marble veins on the lower area. Ornate designs in the rotunda contained the initials CC for Cottonwood County."

The words "Cottonwood County" are also spelled out in red terrazzo tile in the building's entryway, while the center of the rotunda features a green and red tile motif of the scales of justice.

A number of other artistic touches remain today: walls and office doors of etched glass in the rotunda, and door frames and decorative woodwork of embossed tin and marble countertops in each office.

In the courtroom, the original benches and woodwork, including the hand-lathed rails between the spectator area and the judicial area, have remained.

The exterior and structure of the courthouse has changed little, a requirement for buildings on the national register.

"You cannot change the structure itself; you can upgrade inside, but you do as little as necessary," Wahl said. "They left all the tile, the woodwork is original woodwork; we just added an elevator and handicap access."

The structure was designed in the classical Greek Corinthian style, with press brick being used for the gray coloring and Wisconsin limestone giving the exterior its reddish tint.

"When the building was constructed, the porches or porticos, which the architect originally had on the plans, were omitted. After seeing the finished product, the commissioners decided that the porches should be added after all. These porches form the commanding entrances as we see them today," the pamphlet reads.

The commissioners also decided to add stone arches on the first-floor window frames, brick square tops on the second floor windows, and fireproof doors and windows.

Wahl said the two-story octagonal rotunda has also become a draw during the holiday season.

"In winter, it's kind of neat because they put up a huge Christmas tree in the rotunda. That always brings people in, just to see the Christmas tree because it's huge, huge, huge," Wahl emphasized. "There are also lights on the dome at Christmastime."

The major restorations to the facility were completed in commemoration of the United States' bicentennial in 1976.

In addition to the Brioschi's commemorative red, white and blue seal in the center of the rotunda's dome, Ecclesiastical decorator Joe Capeschi of St. Paul cleaned and restored the courtroom mural, restenciled the original motifs and glazed the cornices.

Butterfield native Paul Kramer also assisted in repairing the surfaces of the murals.

In 1979, the statue of Lady Justice was removed from atop the building and taken to Messer Machine and Manufacturing in Windom for repair.

"The base was rotten and the statue seemed to be pierced with bullet holes. The scales had blown off in a 1930s wind storm and as a show of patriotism they were given to the World War II scrap metal drive," the pamphlet reads. Though the scales were replaced, they were again blown off in a later wind storm.

Though changes in technology and state and federal code would necessitate changes in the late '80s and early '90s, much of the original 1904 building and décor were kept intact.

Even with some restoration, noted Wahl, "It's interesting to know that the stuff is still the original and hasn't been changed."