(L-R) Jeffrey Paulsen, SBM Law-Related Education & Public Outreach Committee member; Janet Welch, SBM executive director; and Bruce Courtade, SBM president. Speakers: Hon. Al Butzbaugh, past SBM president; Michael Marrs, Conybeare Law Office PC; John Fedynsky, Michigan assistant attorney general; Hon. Thomas Nelson, Berrien County Circuit Court chief judge; Robert Myers, History Center at Courthouse Square curator.
The historic Berrien County Courthouse became the State Bar of Michigan's 38th Michigan Legal Milestone on June 26, 2013. In a dedication ceremony at the Howard Performing Arts Center in Berrien Springs, speakers highlighted the history of the 1839 courthouse, and the important role that such courthouses played in the state’s justice system and communities.
Complete Text on Milestone Marker
Berrien County Courthouse
Michigan’s Oldest County Courthouse
The county courthouse is an iconic symbol of the American legal system. Its importance in Michigan is established in the Michigan Constitution of 1835, which authorized county courts and the laws that followed, requiring counties to provide suitable courthouses. The legal precedents that continue to guide Michigan judges arose out of cases that were decided in the state’s earliest local courthouses.
This courthouse, erected in Berrien Springs in 1839, is Michigan’s oldest existing county courthouse and is architecturally representative of the type of buildings used by Michigan’s earliest judges and lawyers. Architect Gilbert B. Avery designed the Greek Revival-style courthouse. Local builder James Lewis began construction in 1838 and finished in time for the April 1839 court term. The courthouse consisted of the courtroom on the main floor and offices for county officials on the lower level.
The courthouse also served as a community gathering-place. Political party meetings and conventions, musicals and theatrical performances, civic meetings, religious services, weddings, and funerals all took place here. During the Civil War, county residents held fund-raising rallies for soldiers’ families on the courthouse grounds.
Structural problems led to a major renovation in 1863.The building was raised three feet and a brick lower floor installed, along with a second-floor balcony, boxes under columns, and two new interior staircases.
An 1894 election moved the county seat of government from Berrien Springs to St. Joseph. The county thereafter sold the courthouse, and between 1894 and 1966, the building served as a dance hall, militia drill hall, the first home for Emmanuel Missionary College (now Andrews University), and as a church.
The Berrien County Historical Association acquired the courthouse in 1967 and began a seven-year restoration of the building. The state of Michigan re-designated it an active courthouse for ceremonial purposes in 1974 and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Placed by the State Bar of Michigan, the Berrien County Bar Association,
and the Berrien County Historical Association
June 26, 2013