Monday, September 5, 2016

Courthouse History

Here is the history as well as some photographs depicting four of the courthouses that have served St. Tammany Parish.

Prior to 1817, a courthouse serving both Washington and St. Tammany Parishes was located near Enon in Washington Parish in an area known as "Washington Fields." Records indicated that some soldiers were stationed there for the War of 1812. 

Click on the images to make them larger. 

An 1820 map showing the first courthouse near Enon, located at the top of the map

According to a publication of the Louisiana State Bar Association entitled "Louisiana’s Historic Courthouses: A Look at the Past and the Present," (Published in 2016) The St. Tammany Parish courthouse sprang from legislation signed by Louisiana's first governor, William Charles Cole Claiborne in 1813. The legislation called upon a local committee to  locate  a  courthouse site  "within three miles of the center of St. Tammany Parish,  which  at  that  time  consisted  of  Washington  Parish,  St.  Tammany  Parish and the portion of Tangipahoa Parish east of the Tangipahoa River."

Following those directions, the group established the first courthouse near the banks of the  Bogue Chitto River near Enon on property owned by Judge Thomas C. Warner, who was the first parish judge in St. Tammany  Parish.

The Bar Association's Journal went on to explain that four years after establishing the courthouse near Enon, another group was given the assignment of moving the parish seat. "The  Claiborne Company had purchased a portion of the Kleinschmidt Spanish land grant in 1813. In exchange for the commission naming the Town of Claiborne as the parish seat, the Claiborne Company offered some of its land and agreed to build a courthouse and jail for the parish, free of charge."

"Robert Layton told them (the group seeking a parish seat) that he'd build a courthouse if they made Claiborne the parish seat," said retired Judge Steve Ellis, a parish historian. This resulted in the second St. Tammany Parish courthouse being built in the Town of Claiborne  just east and across the river from Covington. It cost around $20,000 to build.


That building, built in 1818, currently stands across the driveway from the Chimes Restaurant near the Bogue Falaya River. The structure was completed and opened for business on April 12, 1819.

CLICK HERE for an article about the above building. 

 However, the bar journal account noted that "within  10  years  of  the  erection of the 1819 Courthouse, the Police Jury determined that the courthouse should be moved  to  Covington,  previously  known as the Town of Wharton."

On June 5, 1837, the Police Jury purchased Lots 12-15 on the corner of Boston
and New Hampshire Streets in Covington for use as a courthouse site, the bar journal stated.

The 1819 Courthouse was eventually sold and used as a private residence and Catholic seminary. In  the  late  1800s,  a  hotel  known  as  the  Claiborne Cottages was built next to the former 1819 Courthouse. Those cottages were destroyed by fire in the early 1900s.  

The parish seat was moved from Claiborne to Covington in 1838. A courthouse was built on the corner of Boston St. and North New Hampshire St. In  1884,  however, the  Police  Jury  voted  to demolish  the  courthouse  located  at  that location. "During the demolition and rebuilding period, Covington Town Hall  was  used  as  a  courtroom.  The  new  courthouse opened two years later in 1886 and was used for 73 years, according to the bar journal account.

 The structure pictured above at that location was built in 1896, with the cornerstone of that building pictured below, as it looks preserved as a monument in front of the old courthouse site at the northeast corner Boston St. and New Hampshire St. 

Here are some additional pictures of that 1896 structure.

St. Tammany Parish School Board in front of the old courthouse around 1906. 

The police jury poses for a group portrait

"The completion of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in 1956 magnified the need for a larger facility to conduct the parish’s business," the Bar Association article went on to say. "In 1959, the parish decided to build a new courthouse, completed in 1960. Within the year it took to complete the new courthouse, court was held in the gymnasium of the Jefferson Avenue  grammar  school.  The new courthouse shown below was opened in 1959 in the same location as the previous courthouse. It featured a jail on the third floor.

Here is the printed program for the ceremonies opening the new courthouse on June 1, 1960.

The police jury held a number of committee meetings about what to do about the growing space problems in the courthouse building.

  They finally decided, despite objections, to build a new courthouse down near Interstate 12. 

The courthouse stayed in Covington, however, after some legal action by city officials noting that the courthouse had to be in the parish seat. 

In an April, 1977, article in New Orleans Magazine, the status of the courthouse re-location was summed up as follows: " With all of those political squabbles going on, the sudden growth explosion on the north shore has only contributed to the turmoil. A longstanding friendly political rivalry between Covington and Slidell has been fanned into a burning feud by the influx of people and the resulting competition for money and power. Since representation on the parish police jury is proportionate to the population, the political weight has recently shifted to Slidell, which has used that advantage to challenge the 165-year-old parish seat in Covington.

    The parish seat flap arose out of a related controversy over where to build a much-needed new courthouse and prison facility. The original proposal was to construct the new courthouse complex where U.S. 190 crosses 1-12, just outside the Covington city limits. The plan was contingent upon the Covington City Council's agreement to annex the site in question so the parish seat would remain in Covington. But Covington businessmen raised such a howl about the economic setback they'd suffer by such a move, the city council refused to annex the 1-12 site.

    So the courthouse bond issue, which goes to St. Tammany voters April 16, (1977) will carry a referendum  question about whether the parish seat should be moved out of Covington."

For several years, in an effort to provide more space, there were a couple of courtrooms and judges offices in the building where the Southern Hotel is located today. It served as Parish Administrative Offices for several years, complete with police jury meeting room and offices for various parish agencies. 

The parish chose to ignore the city's objections and built an office facility on Koop Drive off La. 29 near Interstate 12, moving its main administrative offices and several key departments to that location. 

Twenty years after the initial efforts, new  efforts in 1996 resumed to build a bigger courthouse, but within the boundaries of the City of Covington. The old P&W Salvage facility on Jefferson Avenue was considered.

In the February 25, 2000, edition of the St. Tammany News Mitchell Richard wrote that the clean up of the old P. & W. Industries site in Covington, home of the future St. Tammany Parish Courthouse, was essentially done, according to P&W president Harry Warner. This paved the way for the beginning of construction for the new courthouse.

"The Covington site was the location of P. & W. Industries for over 30 years before the company's move in August of 1998 to its current location on U.S. Highway 59 located near Mandeville. P. & W. Industries is a steel recycling and sales corporation. The site, bounded by North Jefferson and North Theard Streets in downtown Covington, has been in use since 1912.

Bids for the 300,000-square-foot courthouse will open for contractors Wednesday, March 1, 2000, with a projected overall cost of $45 million.

"Richard Lambert, the courthouse's chief architect, was contracted two years ago to draft the plans for the complex, an overdue project designed to supplant the current facility on Boston Street in Covington. 

"The current courthouse is described by some who work there as cramped and no longer suitable for the purpose, particularly after a tornado tore through downtown Covington in October 1997, damaging the structure and hundreds of files and records.

"With no delays in construction the new courthouse will open its doors for business sometime in 2003, Lambert said."

According to the Bar Association article, "The 1960 courthouse was used until the St. Tammany Justice Center opened in 2003, which brought together many of the parish’s offices that were scattered throughout the city."

"The St. Tammany Parish Justice Center, unlike  any  courthouse  in  Louisiana,  is  a 312,000-square-foot structure containing 22,000 cubic yards of concrete and 25,000 St. Joe bricks and housing 12 courtrooms," said the article. Here are some photographs of that building.

The Courthouses of St. Tammany Parish 
A History Compiled By Judge Frederick S. Ellis

(Published 2003)

History tells us that there have been about seven courthouses in St. Tammany Parish over the years. I say about seven because there is very little information about the period after the parish seat was removed from Claiborne to Covington, sometime between 1818 and 1830.
The very first courthouse was located near Enon, on the property of Judge Thomas C. Warner, who was the first Parish Judge of St. Tammany Parish. At that time, the parish consisted of all of Washington and St. Tammany parishes, and that part of Tangipahoa Parish lying east of the Tangipahoa River. 
The commissioners who located the site were instructed to place it within three miles of what they perceived to be the center of the parish. Fortuitously, they found that spot to be on the Judge's property, and the courthouse was built.

After the parish seat was moved, a few years later, Judge Warner is said to have used it for a hay barn. Then, in 1819, when Washington Parish was created, it was cleaned out, and used as a courthouse again.

In 1817, an election was held to relocate the parish seat. As a result of that election, the legislature named five commissioners, David B. Morgan, Jesse R. Jones, John Wright, James Tate and Daniel Edwards to select "the most proper site for a permanent seat of justice in or near the Town of Covington."

Jones had come to Covington in 1813, where he achieved great success, both politically and financially. His principal residence was a beautiful old Georgian house that stood near the entrance to what is now Bogue Falaya Park. He was a member of the first town council elected in Covington and served as the third parish judge of St. Tammany. He later became a district judge and member of the state legislature.

One local legend credits Judge Jones with naming Covington, which was first dedicated in 1816 as the Town of Wharton. One day, according to the story, Jones, then a rising young lawyer who had fought with Andrew Jackson, was enjoying a glass of fine Kentucky whiskey with friends at a local tavern when he said, "If we are going to confer honor on anything when we rename this town, let us choose something worthy of the honor. I don't know of anything that's given us all such mellow and consistent pleasure as this Blue Grass whiskey from Covington. Therefore, I make a motion that hereafter this town be known as Covington."

In time, in their quest for a location for the parish's seat of justice, Judge Jones and his fellow commissioners turned their attention to an offer, made by Robert Layton. Layton was an interesting young man. He had changed his name from Lawn to Layton. His mother, Mary Dawson Lawn lived in Covington. She was the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, and the widow of Buxton Lawn, a child of King George III of England by Hannah Lightfoot. 
Some say that George and Hannah were legally married, but that when he unexpectedly became the Prince of Wales, and heir to the throne of England, he was forced to put her aside. Robert's sister, Eliza Lawn, married William B. Ligon, who was, at that time, Sheriff of St. Tammany Parish.

Robert Layton was also the President of the Claiborne Company, which had been established in 1813. The company bought a large part of the Kleinschmidt Spanish land grant, located across the Bogue Falaya River from Covington. There it laid out a town called Claiborne, undoubtedly after the American Governor of Louisiana, William Charles Cole Claiborne.

 In return for having the commission select Claiborne as the parish seat, the Claiborne Company agreed to build a courthouse and jail in the town. The commissioners bought into that idea, and selected the Town of Claiborne as the second seat of justice in St. Tammany Parish.

The building which they erected as the courthouse still stands in Clai­borne, but the jail has long since disappeared. There is a cottage still standing near the old courthouse which is reputed to have been its law library.

After its short tenure as the courthouse, the building built by the Claiborne Company became a private resi­dence for a number of years, and then a Catholic Semi­nary. Some years after the Civil War ended, it was reno­vated into a hotel by the Jaufroid family, and beginning in 1880, operated as such for many years. 

Jules B. Maille also operated it as a hotel, and conducted a school there. Later, Dr. Numa Hebert operated it as a hotel, and made his home there. The property, including the old court­house, is now owned by the heirs of Robert L. Lobdell.

I am not sure when the parish seat was moved from Claiborne to Covington. There is little or no information on how the new courthouse looked, or of what it was built. The only mention I found was in a letter from Judge Jesse Jones to the Police Jury in 1830, in which he said that they would have to appropriate $1000.00 to pay towards the price of the courthouse.

In about 1875, there were complaints about the condi­tion of that early courthouse, which was said to be in a state of near ruin. Shortly thereafter, a new courthouse was built, at a cost of something under $10,000.00. Once again, nothing is known about this courthouse, except that, within a very few years, less than ten, it too was approaching a state of ruin.
In 1885, a new brick courthouse was built on Boston Street, which was to remain in use until it was torn down in 1958, to be replaced by a new edifice. 

It had a spacious courtroom on the second floor, along with a smaller room to be used by the Court of Appeal, which at that time rode circuit. To the right of the front door was the office of the Clerk of Court, who enjoyed, in later years, a large vault built onto the side of the building to house the mortgage, conveyance and court records. 

The Sheriff had a small, two room office to the left of the front door. The assessor's office was behind the Clerk, and the Registrar of Voters across the center hall from him. The Police Jury had a large room in a separate building in the rear, attached to the main building by a breezeway. Completely detached from the main building, but adjoining the Police Jury office, was the parish jail.

During that entire period, St. Tammany Parish was part of various judicial districts, sometimes including the neigh­boring parishes of Washington, Tangipahoa, Livingston, and St. Helena, but always it was served by only one judge. After the Constitution of 1921, it was included in the Twen­ty Second Judicial District, along with Washington Parish. 

As late as the 1950s when the 1885 courthouse was torn down, the district was served by only one judge, who held court in Covington for one week per month.

Beginning in the early fifties, the population of St. Tammany Parish began to increase rapidly, more than doubling during that decade. All of the departments of the parish government were suffering with a severe shortage of space. By 1959 a decision was made to build a new courthouse to alleviate the shortage on the site formerly occupied by the 1885 courthouse.

 In the interim, the cour­thouse personnel moved to the basement of the grammar school on Jefferson Avenue. The gymnasium became the courtroom, and it was in this room that the famous hear­ing on the sanity of Earl K. Long was held. In 1960, the "new" courthouse was completed, and the various departments of parish government moved in.

This courthouse had space for the Sheriff, Clerk of Court, Assessor, District Attorney, Registrar of Voters, the Police Jury, one judge, and, on the third floor, the jail, which occupied less than half of the available space. In 1960, because of an increased case load, a second judge was added to the district. 

Almost immediately, because of the continued increase in the population of St. Tammany Parish, space shortages began to occur. The Clerk was forced to use the basement for additional storage and office space. As new judges became necessary, the parish government began to expand into adjoining buildings. 
The old Southern Hotel became the Parish Administrative Annex, and housed a number of judges. A new jail had to be built just north of the parish fairgrounds. The Sheriff's office was expanding at a rapid rate.

It became obvious more than ten years ago that a new courthouse was a necessity. Two efforts to build new courthouses, the first on Highway 190 near Holiday Square, and the second in Bogue Falaya Plaza (now the site of the Village Walk development) were soundly defeated at the polls.

Finally, in this year of our Lord 2003, an adequate structure has appeared. The first courthouse would just about fit into the lobby of the imposing new Justice Cen­ter, which, in addition to the Clerk, Sheriff, Assessor and Registrar of Voters, houses the District Attorney and ten judges.

Judge Jesse Jones wouldn't know what to make of it."

The new Justice Center at the intersection of Theard and Columbia St.