Cayuga County Courthouse

Cayuga County Courthouse

158 Genesee Street, Auburn, New York

Built: 1836. Renovated 1979

Houses: Supreme, County, Surrogate, Family & Commissioner of Jurors

Judicial District: Seventh

The present Cayuga County Courthouse in Auburn was built in 1836 replacing the original wood frame courthouse of 1809 on the same site. Erected during the height of the Greek Revival movement in the United States, the limestone courthouse features a Doric portico of six fluted columns with an unusual line of third floor windows carried thru the entablature.

Since then, the building has undergone two major renovations; the first in 1922-24 following a fire that destroyed the domed cupola, roof, and entire interior, and the most recent, completed in 1979 involving a major expansion and interior renovation made possible by connecting the courthouse to the adjacent old County Clerks Building, a Victorian brick structure of 1882.

Cayuga County Courthouse was the site of an important precedent setting trial involving William Seward, Auburn lawyer and former U.S. Secretary of State, who in 1846 defended a man accused of murder, basing his plea on the unprecedented grounds of insanity.

The Cayuga County Court House has been an important landmark in downtown Auburn since its initial construction in 1836. It is not only architecturally significant as an example of two trends in classical architecture, but also a reminder of Cayuga County's long and varied history, including such important events as William Seward's 1846 insanity defense in People vs. Freeman. Auburn became the county seat in 1805 due to its central location in the newly formed Cayuga County. In 1809, a wood frame courthouse was built on the present courthouse site for $10,000. Auburn was a growing community in the early 1 800s, with the establishment of the Auburn Theological Seminary and the state penitentiary. By the 1830's, it was decided that the 1810 courthouse was not adequate for the thriving village. Architect John Hagaman submitted plans for a two story Greek temple with a large dome, and the courthouse was built in 1836 at a cost of $30,000. The new courthouse was witness to a famous case in 1846, one that is still remembered today for its significance. William H. Seward, an Auburn attorney who later became the Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, defended William Freeman in the case of the murder of the Van Ness family (People vs Freeman). Seward used a defense of innocent by reason of insanity, the first time such a defense was used in the United States. A plaque in front of the courthouse (since removed) read: "Although scorned and humiliated by many for his stand at the time, history has since vindicated him as a man of principle, courage, and foresight." The courthouse was not only home to courtrooms and judges, but also housed all county government offices. In 1882, the present red brick "Annex" was built to accommodate the growing county government. These offices remained in the courthouse until 1969 when the new six floor County Office Building was built next door. In 1922, a fire destroyed the dome and gutted most of the interior of the courthouse. The exterior walls were not injured, so the courthouse was reconstructed as a three story building, with a third floor and plain gabled roof replacing the dome. The fire-damaged Greek revival structure was rebuilt in the Neo-classical Revival style, typical of the early twentieth century popularity of classical architecture for government buildings. This makes the courthouse architecturally significant as reflective of two trends in architecture from two distinct historical periods.

Source: "Survey of Court Facilities in New York State", NYS Office of Court Administration...1981 pg 351; Jill Fandrich