Ticket to Write: Woodbury County Courthouse a work of art
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — One of the most American of buildings can be found, not surprisingly, in the middle of America.
The Woodbury County Courthouse in downtown Sioux City, Iowa, is perhaps the finest existing example of a public building constructed in the Prairie School style.
The beautiful courthouse, completed in 1918, celebrates its centennial this year.
The building’s architect, William Steele, had worked for architect Louis Sullivan, a leader of the Prairie School movement. Steele’s masterpiece in Sioux City is still regarded by many architecture critics as one of the best public buildings in the United States.
The building echoes themes embraced by the Prairie School’s most prominent proponent, Frank Lloyd Wright. Typical of the architectural style, the courthouse features horizontal lines and a broad base, flat roofs and abundant but controlled ornamentation reflecting the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century.
The courthouse is impressive from the outside, with locally sourced yellow brick made from Loess Hills soil, amazingly intricate but restrained terracotta filigree, and muscular sculptures by artists Christian Schneider and Alfonso Iannelli.
Stepping inside, though, is a breathtaking experience, even before you pass through the definitely 21st century metal detector at the public entrance.
The entrance, with a flourish of geometric terracotta, pulls the eye through to the expansive central rotunda and a cascade of soft colors reflected in massive murals, more terracotta details, and, above it all, a dome of stained glass, filtering the light.
More soft light radiates from hanging fixtures and wall lamps, which echo the arrow-and-leaf motif and colors of the dome.
The four murals, which line the mezzanine of the rotunda, depict an ancient court scene; rural farm life; city life and an allegory of progress; and a tribute to the World War I soldiers who had just come home from the war — or who hadn’t — when the building was under construction.
The first three murals include delicate and colorful foliage reflecting a definite Asian flavor often found in Arts and Crafts-style decor. The last frames a decorative Art Deco-ish clock and more terracotta detail work.
In 1953 the Des Moines Register opined that the courthouse, when completed in 1918, was “the most advanced work of art in Iowa.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still in the running.
The courthouse, in itself, is worth a trip to Sioux City for any fan of great architecture. But the city, Iowa’s fourth largest, also offers many other attractions for visitors, including sites focusing on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and on the nature and beauty of the Loess Hills.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.