History of the Union County Courthouse
Written by Joanne Rajoppi, Union County Clerk.
For more than 330 years, a government building has been located at the site of the present Courthouse at Broad Street and Rahway Avenue in Elizabeth. The Colonial counterpart, mentioned as early as 1668 as the Elizabethtown Meeting House, was adjacent to the historic First Presbyterian Church where many notable citizens are buried including Hannah Caldwell and her husband, Rev. James Caldwell, the “Fighting Parson.”
The location is steeped in history and lore. It was Hannah Caldwell’s alleged murder by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War that was the inspiration for the Union County Seal which is replicated on many brass doorknobs in the Courthouse. It is rumored by some that Mrs. Caldwell’s ghost walks the area of the cemetery and Courthouse on occasion.
Constructed by early settlers and destroyed in a Tory raid in 1780, the Meeting House was rebuilt in 1797 and razed again by fire in 1808. It was replaced in 1810 by a building described at the time as one of the most modern in the county.
The courthouse area has been the scene of many gatherings. General Winfield Scott, an Elizabeth resident and hero of the Mexican War, was welcomed by his fellow citizens on a raised platform in front of the Courthouse. Until the incorporation of the city in 1855, every voter in Elizabeth was required to cast a ballot at the Courthouse. Many patriotic gatherings took place at the Courthouse where departing soldiers paraded on the green in front of the building.
An addition to the structure was built about 1857when Union County broke from Essex County to become New Jersey’s youngest county.
The first offices in the building were those of the County Clerk, Surrogate, Sheriff and Board of Chosen Freeholders. The Prosecutor’s Office and three courts were added soon after. Wings were added periodically to house other agencies.
As Union County grew in size, a new county Courthouse was conceived and designed by architects Ackerman and Ross. In 1905 a three-story structure, with facilities for all main offices of county government, was opened. The Classical Revival structure forms the central section of today’s layout with a three bay principal facade, portico and four Corinthian columns. Within 15 years, county government again outgrew the structure and in 1925 a seven-floor building, termed the Annex, and including a Hall of Records and County Jail, was added at a cost of approximately $600,000.
One of the best known interior features of the Courthouse is the rotunda. Open halls on the second and third floors view the entrance level below. Window and door openings are trimmed with quality crafted architectural details and classical moldings. At ceiling level, crafted gold moldings compliment the gold chandeliers that hang from the high ceilings.
Some courtrooms in the original building and tower addition contain the same architectural details as the rotunda. In 1931, the 17-floor tower was added to the facility dictated by the need for more space. Designed by Elizabeth architects Oakley and Son at a cost of more than $1.2 million, the massive five bay square tower dominates the Elizabeth skyline. Its steel skeleton is covered with terra cotta and finished to imitate the granite exterior of the old section of the building. The three-story portico on the south side, which fronts on Rahway Avenue, provides the tower with a visual base. The main building has a ground story platform with a flight of steps and four Tuscan columns. Many of the Superior Court of New Jersey courtrooms at the county seat are in the tall slender structure.
The Courthouse is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. A modern, two-story entrance was opened in 2000 on Elizabethtown Plaza. Visitors are welcome at the Courthouse, and tours can be scheduled through the Union County Clerk’s Office. Click here for details.