Yavapai County Courthouse



The Old (2nd) Yavapai County Courthouse, 1878-1916


The Need For a New Courthouse:
There were four reasons why Yavapai County needed a new courthouse. First, the old one had become too small. The county had grown a great deal from 1878 to 1916.

Second, the old courthouse suffered from shoddy construction in the first place and was beginning to fall apart.

The third reason was a matter of civic pride and disgust: “It is unsanitary and reeks with foul smells,”a magazine complained.

The first Yavapai County Courthouse (1867-1878) was the size
and style of a typical boarding house. It also held church services
and was located where the Masonic Temple now stands.

The last reason was a matter of grave concern: “If it should catch fire,”one wrote, “practically all the records would be destroyed since the building does not even approach being fireproof.”

Indeed, on July 6, 1892, fire did break out in the old courthouse costing $3161.50 in damages (about $88,000 today.) It took a month for repairs to even get underway. The old courthouse survived another scare when the Great Fire of July, 1900 burned down neighboring “Whiskey Row.”

The old courthouse was closed forever at 9 pm on February 26th, 1916. Someone then tacked a poignant note to the door reading: “She was a good old house in her younger days, but she's 'all in' now

Demolition of Old Courthouse

As the old courthouse was being demolished, she did not go quietly. One man was killed and another severally injured in the basement when a wall came down on top of them.


However, the road to getting our third (and current) courthouse was both bumpy and winding.

Sticker Shock:

“Planning for the new courthouse began in earnest in 1915 when a nationwide contest brought in some 23 plans from architects in a dozen major cities.”A budget was set at $250,000 for a 4-story, fire-proof, turn-key ready courthouse.

However, when bids were opened April 12th, 1916, hopes for a new structure were nearly dashed. The lowest bid for general construction alone was $217,864 by Rogers & Ashton, with erection and equipment pushing the bill to $300,000. This would not do.

As a result, “the (county) supervisors went over the specifications for the building carefully, crossed out certain materials and equipment that were not absolutely necessary and (with these subtractions,) Rogers & Ashton...agreed to do the general construction work alone for $180,000.”

Our Courthouse Wouldn't Stand-Up In Court:
All of this whittling down of the price-tag raised legal problems, however. When the trimmed-down contract was handed over for review by the county attorney's office, they declared it to be illegal. The action was in violation of Title 40 of the civil code and this “new”bid was not taken in competition. It was insisted by the attorney's office that all bids be refused and re-advertisement be made for new bids.

However, the County Board of Supervisors completely ignored the advice and signed the contract anyway. The legal argument made by the attorney's office was clear, straight-forward and well publicized.

Yet, so universal was the desire for a larger, fire-proof, fresher-smelling courthouse, that no one ever challenged the matter in court!

Yavapai County would be getting her new courthouse after all.


The Mysterious Cornerstone


Cornerstone of the Yavapai County Courthouse laid October 19th, 1916

After the contract to build the new courthouse was signed, preparatory work began immediately.

Of special interest and care was the building's cornerstone. A date of October 19th, 1916 was set for the laying of the cornerstone to coincide with the opening of the Fourth Annual Northern Arizona Fair.  The mayor declared a holiday and all businesses closed for the festivities.

Yet there are mysteries behind it.

Special care was taken in picking out the cornerstone. “The piece (was) 4.6 x 3 x 3 feet and is said to to the finest product in that family, exceeding in quality the famed Gunnison granite of Colorado.”

“It is native granite, or strictly speaking, the 'Prescott Granodiorite' that was intruded some 1.7 billion years ago.”

Masonic Ties:
Like many civic buildings across the country, the cornerstone was placed in a Masonic ceremony. “All of the grand lodge members of the Free and Accepted Masons of Arizona (convened) in the Masonic Temple at 9:30 am” for the 10 am service.  Nearly every Mason in the area came to see the rare and momentous ceremony.

Rare, grainy photo of the Cornerstone Laying Ceremony, 10/19/1916

A large crowd turned out to witness the impressive festivity. “Following a prayer by the grand chaplain, (the) chairman of the board of supervisors welcomed the Masonic order and bade them begin the ceremonies.” These mysterious rituals were performed by the Grand Master of the state. After signal was given and the cornerstone was lowered into place, the Masons “christened it with corn, oil and wine.”


The Hidden Time Capsule:
Before the cornerstone was sealed, a time capsule was placed inside. “All institutions, public officials and, in fact, every organization interested in Yavapai county have filed...records to be sealed and buried in the cornerstone. This packet will not be opened for at least a century, or until such time as Yavapai county will again need a courthouse.” A century later would be October 19th, 2016.


The Construction


After the cornerstone was laid, construction started immediately.

Under the contract, the courthouse was supposed to be finished by the end of 1917.  Even though the builders stated that it would be finished “long before that time,” it was not completed until 1918.


The Granite Came From Miller Valley

The granite for the Courthouse was quarried locally at the Larkin Quarry, just west and north of Rock Lane off of Gail Gardner Way. Additional stone was provided from a quarry adjacent to the Granite Mountain Middle School. This granite, or “Prescott Granodiorite” to be exact, was “intruded some 1.7 billion years ago.”

Preparatory operations to extract the granite were extensive. These included a “large line of power machinery, derricks, erecting shops and buildings for employees.”

Expert masons from Scotland were brought in to handle the detailed work.

Rare photo of worker preparing granite
for the Yavapai County Courthouse.

It turned out that this native stone made exceptional building material. First, 40 to 50 ton blocks were cleaved off the quarry wall without using explosives. This was accomplished by drilling “3 inch holes at intervals of six inches along the line that the rock is to be cut. A splitting wedge, technically termed a 'plug and feathers' is then inserted into each hole. The feathers are small side pieces of steel. The plug is a small wedge inserted in each hole.”

50 ton block falls to earth.

“A workman drives each wedge into these holes and by striking the plugs, one after another, in regular order, again and again, is able to bring even pressure to bear upon the granite so it finally cleaves along the line marked out by the holes.”

Then the rough-cut stones are lifted out of the quarry and taken to finishing sheds using a narrow gauge tram.

“Here, each rock is shaped according to the plan provided the workmen and is either surfaced with a bush hammer driven by compressed air or else is finished with a mallet and chisel.”

Every stone was formed to exact specifications. Someday, if and when the Courthouse is torn down, demolishers will discover that every stone has an individual number painted on it to identify where it would be placed during the construction.

When the finished stones arrived at the Courthouse Square, they were quickly laid into their proper position.

Newspaper ad for the quarry that
provided the Courthouse's granite.

Rogers and Ashton, contractors for the quarry, were proud of their product. “It is a free working granite and is remarkably tough,”Ashton said. “It cleaves easily and evenly and remains remarkably true (in its evenness of color.)”

Over 25,000 cubic yards of granite would be extracted for the Courthouse.

Due to its high quality and low freight costs, the quarry ended up providing the granite for buildings all over town. However, eventually, the finest granite in the mountain began to peter-out and the business did not survive the Depression.

The Down-Payment for the Next Courthouse Might Be Underneath the Current One
There is an urban myth that Prescott's downtown area has several tunnels running underneath it. This has been debunked by historians several times. However, if someone were to try to dig tunnels under the Courthouse, they would do well to save the dirt!

As preparatory digging was underway to make room for the foundation and several feet of overburden was removed, flecks of gold were found mixed in the underlying dirt. (Perhaps in ancient times, what we call Granite Creek used to run there.) In any case, our city's founders seemed to have unwittingly plotted out Prescott's downtown over an ancient placer gold field.

Out of curiosity, this dirt was assayed at $40 a ton. Of course, back then, gold was $20 an ounce. In today's market, a single 5-gallon bucket of this pay-dirt would net one $40!

When citizens found this out, they thought it appropriate for the seat of Yavapai County to be located over a placer gold field (since the discovery of gold in the area brought rise to the city in the first place.)

As far as can be determined, the breadth and depth of this gold field has never been fully ascertained.

Yavapai County Fortress
In building a fireproof structure, the people of Yavapai County erected a near fortress that should survive remarkably well in her desert environment.

There already are some ancient buildings in the southwest; the dwellings at the Granite Mountain National Monument in Prescott's own backyard, for example.


The Wupatki Ruins are nearly 1000 years old.

One also thinks of the Wupatki pueblo ruins near Flagstaff. These ruins consist of stones and mortar and have stood for nearly a thousand years.

The Yavapai County Courthouse, on the other hand, is constructed of reinforced concrete walls and floors enveloped with 57,000 tons of solid granite! If Wupatki can last a millennium, how long might the Courthouse last?

To us, the Courthouse is an antique, but taking the perspective of the building's own lifetime, she's just now emerging from adolescence. Undoubtedly, the “Belle of the Downtown Ball”has bones sufficient to become a very old lady, indeed.

In 1986, the Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  With regular maintenance, she should be with us for a very long time to come...


Long may she stand!

Thanks to Drew Desmond for this informative article!


                                                                     © Michelle Young 2012