Built Environment : Structures : Buildings :

The Foursquare Courthouse Form

Meeting Houses, Town Houses, Court Houses

A cubical two-story building with a pyramidal roof used predominantly for 19C courthouses

The "Foursquare Courthouse" is a unique vernacular American building form that was popular in the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century.

Similar to but not to be confused with the Foursquare house type, this is a building form that is two stories tall and cubic, with a hipped roof, that was used for public buildings such as houses of worship, town halls, statehouses, courthouses, jails, schools, etc. (and thus I am tempted to call it the "Foursquare Public Building Form"). It is usually three or five bays and 40 to 50 feet wide, and the same in depth, give or take a bay or 10 feet (Ohman 1982: 171t). Frequent embellishments include cupolas, belfries, observation decks, and spires on the roof crest. The floorplan was often simply one undivided room on each floor, but that could vary. (Since a distinctive floorplan is not a part of the definition, and the exterior can vary within a basic appearance, this is a form rather than a type.)

My interest stems from the fact that my hometown of Chillicothe had an early version of a foursquare courthouse (on the right), which also served as the first statehouse of Ohio. That building is said to be the model of a courthouse still standing in Indiana (on the left) that served as that state's first capitol, too.

Ohio was a hotbed for the form, as witnessed in 1845 images of foursquare courthouses from the first volume of Howe's Historical Collection of Ohio (along top). A collection of images are available in Gallery 1 and Gallery 2.


"Ancient Church," West Springfield, Massachusetts - 1704.
Burntisland Parish Church, Burntisland, Fife County, Scotland - 1592, 1749 (restorative illustration)
The form was possibly introduced to America in use as a meetinghouse - or it evolved here out of Puritan simplification of houses of worship - because the earliest known examples were early seventeenth-century New England Protestant churches (Sweeney 1993: 61c2t). The form was apparently tranferred to New England town halls by the start of the eighteenth century, and then somehow became widely dispersed through the Ohio River valley, Old Northwest, midwest (and even Texas) as a courthouse form after 1785. The reason and agent of dispersion is unclear (Ohman 1982: 171m-172m; Sweeney 1993).

Another version of its origin attributes the English market hall as the origin of the Foursquare New England meetinghouse, or at least a one-story version - but still doesn't explain the diffusion of the Foursquare form in America. Whiffen & Koepper (1981 pp 13-17) state:

The essential public building in every New England community was the meeting house. The earliest New England meeting houses were outwardly indistinguishable from dwellings.

Actually the Rochester, Massachusetts town house, this would probably be similar to the early one-story meetinghouses. Image is figure 14 from Sweeney 1993.
However, a distinctive solution to the architectural problem, which was to provide for secular meetings as well as religious worship with a building that should be both the symbolic and the physical center of the town, came into use around the middle of the [seventeenth] century: a square [one-story] structure with a high hipped roof surmounted by a platform and a belfry, its interior a single room with fixed benches and more often than not one or more galleries.

The type was an adaptation of the English market hall - an adaptation, not an exact copy, for the English market hall was normally of two stories, with the ground story open on all four sides to the street or square to provide a covered space for the display and sale of produce and wares. (The

The first Boston town house, burned in 1711. Image from Boston History & Architecture.
first Boston Town House, built in 1657-58, was a substantial example on this side of the Atlantic.) In the meeting house there was no function for the open ground story and it was therefore omitted - much as in the Early Christian basilica of Western Christiandom the galleries of the Roman civil basilica were omitted for want of a function.

The English market hall was itself an adaptation of a type of house, built in England from Anglo-Saxon times to the fifteenth century in both town and country, with the living quarters on the second floor above a ground-floor storage cellar; in the market hall the walls of the cellar were omitted.

The English Market Hall

Jean Manco, in her excellent website Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles, has a webpage on Market Houses and Halls. She writes:

This provided a covered area for vendors on the ground floor and a guildhall, town hall, moot hall or tolsey above. This plan can be traced back to the Palazzo del Broletto in Como, Italy (1215), but there are no British examples before the 15th century. The market house could serve many purposes. A small town might have no other public building for centuries, so it could house a Tudor court, Civil War armoury or a Victorian policeman. Civic functions, court sessions and public meetings could be held there. It could even double up as a school or jail. The typical structure was an open, arcaded ground floor with one or more storeys above.

English watercolorist John Varley's "Market Place at Leominster, Hereford" (1801). Image from Handprint: Late Georgian watercolors. "Market House, Market Square, Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire...rebuilt in 1824 by J. Grubb as a Cornmarket." Detail of 1906 image © Buckingham County Museum, available in a search on ViewFinder, image resource for England's history. "Ledbury is a market town in the east of Herefordshire...[the market house] is said to have been constructed in 1653 by John Abel, the King's Carpenter." Image from Ledbury Historic Town Walk by Miranda Greene, © Herefordshire Council and used with permission.


The Foursquare Courthouse form was simple and easy to build, especially for inexperienced or untrained builders. Yet, it was imposing to the public, and fit well into the courthouse's frequent position at the center of a public square. It was also simple and appealingly domestic. The form also allowed various floorplans inside it, and could be used for various public uses (Ohman 1982: 188-189).

"The foursquare courthouses were not only an important element of midwestern vernacular architecture but also a highly visible part of the evoving urban landscape" (Ohman 1982: 189).

Direct links to Gallery 1 ... Gallery 2

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