building of the week – old waukesha county courthouse (waukesha county museum)
Key Project Information
Address: 101 West Main Street, Waukesha WI
Year Built: 1885
Additions: 1893, 1938
National Register of Historic Places Designation: 1975
Architectural Style: Richardsonian Romanesque
Architect: Rau and Kirsch, Milwaukee
Historical Use: Courthouse
Current Use: Museum
The Waukesha County Courthouse was built in three stages on the site of the original county buildings which dated back to the 1840s. The west wing, originally the new County Jail, was constructed of local limestone in 1885. The east wing, designed by Milwaukee architects Charles Rau and Robert Kirsch, was constructed in 1893 and 1894. The connecting wing was built in 1938. 1
The east wing is Waukesha County’s foremost example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. The Romanesque Revival in America was inspired by the medieval European Romanesque style, popular in Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries as a revival of earlier classical Roman forms. The American Romanesque Revival constitutes a second distinctive revival of classical Roman architecture.
Two distinct phases of Romanesque Revival have been identified in America. Early Romanesque Revival structures (constructed during the 1840s and 1850s) resembled their Gothic predecessors with Roman forms. This early phase of the revival did not gain much traction with the American people, as the Italianate and Gothic Revival styles of the Romantic Movement remained more popular during that time.
Innovative architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, attended Harvard and subsequently studied architecture in France at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He experimented with a variety of regional architectural forms to develop his own unique style. This Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style is the only Romanesque Revival style considered to be distinctly American. 2
Identifying Features of Romanesque Revival Architecture:
Round arches over windows and/or entryways
Thick, cavernous entryways and window openings
Thick masonry walls
Rounded (sometimes square) towers with conical roofs
The style emphasizes the Classical Roman arch as its dominate feature
Due to its massive construction requirements, the Richardsonian Romanesque style was typically employed for grand public buildings, such as courthouses and train stations. The style became popular quite quickly and was an almost universal style for public buildings during the 1870s and 1880s.
1 Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory, Old Waukesha County Courthouse, Waukesha, Wisconsin, Reference Number 52562. http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/
2 Architectural Styles of America and Europe. “Romanesque Revival”. October 2011. https://architecturestyles.org/romanesque-revival/