Research Doesn’t Disturb Lore of Courthouse Statue

     VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. (CN) — Ron James knows firsthand that folklore can trump the factual written word when it comes to a blindfold-free statue of Lady Justice that has long been a source of community pride for Nevada’s most famous mining town.
     The oldest continuously operated courthouse in the state since its opening in 1877, Storey County Courthouse is by itself deserving of praise.
     In his 1994 book “Temples of Justice: County Courthouses of Nevada,” however, James dispelled a belief long touted by locals: that the Lady Justice positioned outside above the building’s entrance is particularly rare because it lacks a blindfold.
     Having served as the state historic preservation officer in Nevada for more than 25 years before retiring, James found that a Lady Justice without a blindfold is actually not all that unusual.
     He discovered a number of other similar examples in his research, but their significance proved lost on at least one reader.
     James recalled a longstanding Storey County recorder who loved his courthouse book. In fact, the recorder had him sign several copies she gave as Christmas gifts.
     But when James escorted a group of students on a tour of the courthouse in his last year of state employment, he heard the recorder call the justice statue one of only two in the country that didn’t have a blindfold.
     James did not take offense. “Actually I was thrilled because when I wrote the book I was really afraid that I would extinguish the folklore, but it didn’t,” he said in an interview. “The folklore is more powerful than the written word.”
     Noting that a statue could be ordered with or without a blindfold, James said the version without a blindfold is in the minority but “just not as rare as the local folklore would have it.”
     While the blindfold has come to symbolize impartiality, James is among those who argue a blindfold doesn’t make sense because Lady Justice is “the goddess of justice, and if she’s the goddess of justice, she doesn’t need to be blind to be just — she’s inherently just.”
     According to James’ book, the chairman of the Storey County Commission ordered the gold-plated statue from a catalog of the Seelig Fine Arts Foundation of Williamsburg, New York, at a cost of $236, including shipping.
     Another bit of folklore, which James called a 20th century addition, is that the statue’s lack of a blindfold was a reflection of frontier justice the need to see the violence of the Wild West.
     The statue does have other significance: It’s the only one to adorn the outside of a Nevada courthouse.
     James noted that the “idea of having this monumental piece of metal sculpture on the front of a courthouse is a real statement in itself.”
     Making a statement is what Storey County officials had in mind when designing and building the courthouse. The prominent San Francisco architecture firm of Kenitzer and Raun gave county commissioners three options for constructing the High Victorian Italianate style courthouse. They chose the most expensive option, clinging to optimism that Virginia City and the silver riches of the famous Comstock Lode would persist.
     “I think it’s pretty easy to say that they wanted to make a clear statement that Virginia City was opulent and would be hanging around and was going to be better than it ever was,” James said.
     Commissioners succeeded as the two-story courthouse has been described as the most lavish and the most expensive of Nevada’s courthouses built in the 1800s. The final price tag came in at about $117,000 after a dispute over cost overruns between county leaders and the contractor.
     On the other hand, county leaders were wrong to side with optimism in the boom-and-bust world of mining. Virginia City’s wealth and the Comstock Lode soon dried up after the courthouse doors swung open a block from the town’s main street on the site of the old courthouse, which burned down in Virginia City’s great fire of 1875.
     In his book, James writes: “Ironically, the county built the courthouse at a time when Virginia City was about to collapse into near-permanent depression. Perhaps in partial recognition of this inevitable fate, local civic leaders rebuilt the town following the devastating fire of October 26, 1875, in a style grander than before. The Storey County Courthouse remains a vivid example of this community’s rebirth in the face of economic decline.”
     To this day, the courthouse continues to function as the judicial headquarters in a town that has been designated a National Historic Landmark. James said the two vaults in the courthouse contain a treasure trove of documents detailing the history of the earliest part of the state.
     “It was one of the few pieces of monumental architecture in the state of Nevada in the 19th century,” James said. “Nevadans tended not to build big because it was a transient population. People came here to make their pile — as they would say in the 19th century — and then leave.”
     The need to preserve this monumental piece of architecture is not lost on court officials, including District Judge James Russell, who remembers one of the marching orders he received from his predecessors when he came on the bench more than nine years ago: “One of your jobs is to protect that courthouse up in Storey County.”
     Russell tells another story about this protective attitude, one that he’s not sure is true but thinks has merit. At one point, the county commissioners decided to remove the furniture from the judge’s chambers. The judges heard about it and issued an order that if the furniture was not returned by 5 o’clock the commissioners would be held in contempt. The furniture was returned by the deadline.
     Russell and fellow Judge James Wilson, both based in Nevada’s capital, Carson City, alternate visits to the Storey County court, which holds its law-and-motion calendar every third Friday of the month. Carson City and Storey County make up the state’s First Judicial District and are separated by about 15 miles.
     “We enjoy going up there,” Russell said in an interview in his chambers in Carson City. “It’s like a time warp. It’s not changed since the 1800s.”
     Nearly all of the courtroom furnishings are original, including chairs in the jury box, which Russell said can get a bit uncomfortable, requiring a few extra breaks during trials. Chairs for the bench and counsel tables aren’t a problem, however, because they’re newer.
     Security in a nearly 140-year-old courthouse, particularly dealing with defendants who are in custody, also is a “whole different ballgame,” compared with today’s modern facilities, Russell said.
     Inmates from the jail down the street are escorted through the courthouse’s main entrance and up to the second floor courtroom where they sit, chained, in the pews waiting for their names to be called.
     Russell, who has presided over three jury trials in Storey County, mentioned another peculiarity: The jury deliberation room and the courtroom are separated only by a thin wall. The judge said he has to clear and secure the courtroom when the jury is deliberating because “you can hear most of what they’re saying in the courtroom.”
     The courthouse walls provide another slice of history recounted in James’ book. William “Red Mike” Langan, a bricklayer who helped construct the building and who was later incarcerated in the courthouse’s jail on a murder charge, escaped by digging through the wall. He evidently knew that the exterior dual wall was not filled with the usual rubble, thanks reportedly to the contractor’s desire to boost his profit.

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