Olde Colonial Courthouse

  

In December 2013 several members of Tales of Cape Cod began an informal investigation of the history of the Olde Colonial Courthouse. As information was assembled and pieced together, the group began to question some of the long-standing views about the evolution of the building. Over time, the group has grown to include trained preservationists, and the work has been broadened to include on-site investigations. This article is a work-in-progress report produced by the individuals who have participated in this investigation. The hypotheses put forth below will be reviewed as more information becomes available.

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The Olde Colonial Courthouse was the second courthouse constructed in Barnstable County, MA. This building was used exclusively for court sessions. The county’s legal records were maintained in a separate building, the County House, located immediately to the east of the Sturgis Library. Very little information is available to date the construction of the Old Courthouse, its appearance, or the legal proceedings that took place in the building because virtually all of these records were destroyed when the County House burned on October 22, 1827. 

Those records that are available indicate that the Olde Courthouse was built between 1763 and 1774. The date 1763 is suggested by an invoice submitted to Edward Bacon, a member of the Committee responsible for building a new courthouse in Barnstable County.[1] 

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[1] Sturgis Library Permanent Collection, 1763 Invoice, Barnstable, MA.


The transcription of this invoice

  

This invoice indicates that the County appointed a committee responsible for building a new courthouse as early as 1763. Furthermore, expenditures were made for building the new courthouse and efforts were undertaken to sell the old courthouse at that time. Although it is reasonable to assume that this invoice is part of a larger construction project, no further information has been found to confirm that the Olde Courthouse was, in fact, built in 1763, or immediately thereafter. 


Secondary historical accounts, e.g., books on the history of Barnstable County, typically date the construction of the Olde Courthouse in 1772 or 1774 without providing references to primary information or other sources.[2] These dates are probably suggested by a well-documented protest that took place at the Barnstable Courthouse on September 6, 1774.[3] On that date, a band of patriots barred the King’s judge from entering the building in protest of a decree that required all jurors to be appointed by the Crown’s local sheriff. According to an account of this event published in 1837, this was the “first open overt act done in the face of day without disguise, (in the controversy with Great Britain), which according to the British jurisprudence would be called treason.”[4]


The Olde Colonial Courthouse served as the Barnstable County courthouse until the current courthouse was completed in 1834. When its mission as a courthouse ceased, the building was sold to Sidney Ainsworth and subsequently deeded to Samuel Whitman on March 16, 1840. 

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[1] See Trayser, D.G. (ed.), Barnstable: Three Centuries of a Cape Cod Town, F. B. & F. P. Goss: Hyannis Massachusetts. 1939, p. 71. Crocker, Lizzie S. (Hinckley), “Sketch of the Third Barnstable Baptist Church and Meeting House with Membership Enrollment,” Charles Otis: Yarmouthport, MA. 1927, p. 17. Sabatt, Charles M. Nancy N. Weir, “The History of the Barnstable Superior Court, The Barnstable County Superior Court Sesquicentennial Committee: Barnstable, MA. 2009, p. 3. Inventory Form, Old Kings Highway National Historic District, submitted by the Barnstable Historical Commission, 1980.

[1] Niles’ Weekly Register, June 3, 1837, p. 222.

[1] Ibid., p. 222.




Following the death of Mr. Whitman, the building and the grounds where it stands were sold for $77 to the Baptist Society in the East Parish of Barnstable on October 10, 1842.  The building became the home of the Third Barnstable Baptist Church, organized on October 27, 1842. 

  

The Olde Courthouse building was altered between 1842 and 1844 to meet the needs of the church. No formal records have been found that describe the specific alterations made to the building at that time; however, historical accounts and minutes of the Barnstable Baptist Association suggest that the alterations were extensive.  According to numerous accounts the “historic old building . . . was turned on its site so it faced Rendezvous Lane rather than County Road.”[5]  Sprague [1963] notes that Samuel Sturgis Crocker erected the spire on the building in 1842,[6] and the minutes of the Barnstable Baptist Association in 1844[7] indicate that the alterations were costly and more than the fifteen founding members of the congregation could finance. According to these minutes:

  

  • Whereas,   God in his providence, has given an impulse to his cause in North Barnstable,   and enabled a few individuals to complete the erection of a commodious house   of worship, and are unable to pay for it in full; therefore: 
  • Resolved,   That we recommend to the several churches composing this Association, that   they appoint a Committee of three in each Church, to solicit subscriptions   within their own bounds, to extinguish the debt. 
  • Voted,   That the Clerk be requested to write to several churches comprising this Association, and to state to them the condition of the Church in North Barnstable, and request immediate aid in their behalf.

  

In the following year, the minutes of the Association, referring specifically to the Third Baptist Church, state:[8]

  

  • Friends abroad and at   home have greatly aided them in discharging the debt upon their meeting   house, and they are now encouraged to believe that ere long they will be free   from all pecuniary embarrassment. [9]

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[5] Trayser, D.G. (ed.), op. cit., p. 73. Also see Crane, Mary Hinckley, “Barnstable,” in The Seven Villages of Barnstable. Town of Barnstable: Barnstable, MA. 1976. p. 33 and 35. Alan E. Neal, “From Sound-Side.” A Cape Cod Village: From the Horse & Buggy to the Space Age. Mary A. Sprague (ed.). The Patriot Press: Hyannis, MA, 1963. p. 31. Inventory Form, op. cit.

[6] Sprague, op. cit., p. 21.

[7] Minutes of the Barnstable Baptist Association, 1844.

[8] Ibid, 1845.

[9] Crocker, op. cit., p. 12. Although this publication documents changes made to the building between 1845 and 1971 in considerable detail, it provides little information on the specific changes made to the building when it became a church. 

The undated photograph, shown below, is believed to be the earliest picture of the Third Baptist Church. This photograph shows a simple rectangular building with two exterior doors on the west side facing Rendezvous Lane, a gabled roof, and a belfry and spire mounted above the entrance on the west end of the building. In general terms, this building conforms in style to other early New England churches.


  

Taking this photograph as a starting point, it is possible to relate other information and offer a hypothesis regarding the specific changes made to the building when it was converted into a church. First, Gustavous Hinckley (1822–1905), a resident of Barnstable and one-time president of the Barnstable Savings Bank, made several sketches of the Olde Colonial Courthouse from memory around 1885.[10] These sketches show a three-bay rectangular building with a hip roof and centered cupola.  The building faces the County Road (Route 6A), and the entrance to the building is through an enclosed porch located on the south side of the building. Rendezvous Lane is represented as running along the west side of the building. 

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[10] Cape Cod Community College Archives, G. Hinckley Papers and Transcriptions of Dr. Eben Johnson, Barnstable, MA.

  

Second, the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT boasts a statue of Justice in its collection that is purported to have once stood on top of the Olde Colonial Courthouse. According to local tradition, the statue was removed from the building sometime between 1832 and 1844. Since no one wanted it, a carpenter employed in the renovation of the building is believed to have taken the statue to his home. It was purchased by Electra Havermeyer Webb in the early 1900s and became part of the collection of the Shelburne Museum when this museum opened in 1947.

Close inspection of the Hinckley sketch suggests that he may have attempted to represent this statue on top of the cupola. Alternatively, he might have tried to represent a decorative weathervane, a common finishing treatment on top of many government buildings constructed in the pre-Revolution perio

  

Third, preliminary investigations of the foundation of the building failed to turn up any evidence indicating that the building was moved from its original location. If this conclusion is correct, the statement “the building was turned on its site . . .” should be interpreted to mean that the building was reoriented without being moved so the entrance to the building faced west rather than south. 

  

Similarly, an investigation of the attic did find evidence that the roof had been altered and suggested that the building originally had a hip roof as depicted in the Hinckley sketch.


Taken together, these findings lend credibility to the Hinckley sketch and offer a hypothesis regarding the alterations made to the building when it was converted from a courthouse into a church. 


1) It does not appear that the building was moved from its original foundation. Instead, it appears the entrance to the building was moved from the center of the south wall of the building to the west wall of the building. Two entry doors were inserted in the west wall where two windows had previously existed.


2) The cupola and fixture on top of the cupola were removed from the roof. Since these items were decorative and not structural, this analysis does not provide any new insights into whether the fixture on top of the cupola was, in fact, the statue of Justice that is currently in the Shelburne Museum.


3) The rounded windows were replaced with rectangular windows.


4) The roof was changed from a hip to a gabled roof.


5) A belfry and spire were added above the west end of the building.


The result of these changes was to convert a Georgian-style government building into a classical-style church building.  In addition, moving the entrance to the west side of the building enabled the interior of the building to be organized in a manner consistent with conventional church design with a raised altar and pulpit at the end opposite the entrance and pews for the congregation facing the altar.