Visiting the Washington County Historic Courthouse
Located not far from the beautiful homes at the Wildflower at Lake Elmo, a quick 10-minute drive in the city of Stillwater, is the majestic Washington County Historic Courthouse.
Lake Elmo, and the greater Washington County area, is filled with many historical sites. Historic sites in Lake Elmo include the Christ Lutheran Church, located at 1194 36th St. N, and St. Lucas Community Church, located at 1195 Manning Ave. N, cemeteries that date back to the late 1800s when Lake Elmo was only a village.
The Washington County Historic Courthouse was built from 1867 to 1870 during the aftermath of the Civil War when the country turned its attention towards rebuilding and westward expansion, according to Washington County.
The Washington County Historic Courthouse was built by architect Augustus F. Knight, of St. Paul, who designed the courthouse in the Italianate style of architecture along with Green Revival influences.
According to Washington County, the limestone foundation and brick façade of the courthouse were capped with an imposing dome, cupola and flagpole, which soared as a landmark sitting atop Zion’s Hill above the St. Croix River and the city of Stillwater. It cost $60,000 to construct, or roughly $1.9 million today.
The Washington County Historic Courthouse served as the administrative and judicial center of the county for more than a century. The courthouse has one large main courtroom on the second floor, which was reduced in size in the 1960s to add more space for offices; a sheriff’s office and residence that was later turned into office space; numerous offices and meeting spaces; second floor jail cells for female prisoners and a two-story jail in the rear of the building, which replaced the original jail in 1900.
In 1971, the Washington County Historic Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse is the oldest standing courthouse in Minnesota.
The courthouse served the cities of Afton, Bayport, Baytown Township, Birchwood, Cottage Grove, Dellwood, Denmark Township, Forest Lake, Grant, Grey Cloud Island Township, Hastings (part in Washington County), Hugo, Lake Elmo, Lake St. Croix Beach, Lakeland, Lakeland Shores, Landfall, Mahtomedi, Marine on St. Croix, May Township, Newport, Oak Park Heights, Oakdale, Pine Springs, St. Mary’s Point, St. Paul Park, Scandia, Stillwater, Stillwater Township, West Lakeland Township, White Bear Lake (part in Washington County), Willernie and Woodbury.
By 1975, the county outgrew the courthouse and moved to the new Washington County Government Center in Stillwater.
Over the next three decades, the courthouse underwent restoration work that was funded through Washington County, Minnesota Historical Society, grants from foundations and donations from local businesses, community groups, organizations and individual donors. Volunteers continue to help keep the courthouse up and running.
The courthouse is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Washington County Historic Courthouse, which is now a county park, offers many activities and the events at the site.
The courthouse offers self-guided tours 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Free public guided tours are held 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Private tours and school field trip tours are also offered.
A history outdoor tour of the courthouse is being held at 11 a.m. Saturday May 29. Listen to stories about the missing time capsule, Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Monument, Civil War cannons and traverse down the staircase to the Stillwater Veterans Memorial across the street from the courthouse. Register at tinyurl.com/3hhxv3zf.
There are also activities for kids and families at the courthouse including scavenger hunts, clothing displays and dress up outfits, interactive biographical boxes and timelines, comic strip making with courthouse characters Gus & Sig and Winfield the Cat (characters that were created by volunteers), and a children’s corner where kids can touch and feel courthouse artifacts, including tiles and snow catchers, or stamp a county seal using an antique stamp.
The Washington County Historic Courthouse also rents meeting space for small and large groups (10-15 people), and rentals for weddings, seminars and business or entertainment events with a maximum occupancy of 200 people.
All events are contingent on COVID-19 rules and restrictions. To learn more about the courthouse’s events and rental spaces, call 651-275-7075 or visit tinyurl.com/twe6ke4h. To view a 360-degree tour of the Washington County Historic Courthouse, watch a YouTube video at tinyurl.com/y7bt9tyn. To learn more about the history of the courthouse, watch a YouTube video from the Stillwater Heritage Preservation Commission at tinyurl.com/5746kyfp.