“It all started with a new digital camera and full tank of gas,” jokes John Fedynsky about his years-long quest to research and document all of Michigan’s county circuit courthouses.
While on break from law school in the summer of 2003, Fedynsky, now an assistant attorney general, took a sightseeing trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There he discovered that many of the state’s picturesque small-town courthouses were linked through the major thoroughfares.
It was after the trip, while reviewing his series of photos of the striking courthouses that he had taken with his new camera, that he decided to combine several of his passions — travel, photography, law, writing and Michigan history — and write a book about the buildings, their history and the lore that surrounds them.
Between the bar exam and his first job as a research attorney with the Michigan Court of Appeals, Fedynsky completed a good portion of his research in the U.P. and northern part of the “mitten,” visiting two courthouses each day when possible. Thereafter, he visited other counties when he was able during time off from work.
His dedication to the project has resulted in the book just published by The University of Michigan Press: Michigan’s County Courthouses: An Encyclopedic Tour of Michigan Courthouses.
The book is a factual, concise and easily digestible rundown of architectural details and siting histories of the courthouses, as well as the Michigan Supreme Court building, dedicating two to three pages to each building. Ranging in age from more than 140-years-old (Keweenaw County’s classical, white, clapboard structure built in 1866) to less than a year old (Ottawa County’s courthouse in Grand Haven), the architectural style of Michigan’s county courthouses is distinctly diverse.
Some of Fedynsky’s favorites include Midland County’s courthouse, designed in the Tudor style and featuring unique ground-glass murals; the Jacksonian era courthouses in Lapeer and Berrien counties with their Greek Revival style; and the modern, user-friendly Kent County structure in Grand Rapids with its expansive windows and prime views of the city.
Marquette County’s courthouse also holds a special place in his memory for its unique notoriety as the setting for the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder, based on Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker’s (aka Robert Traver’s) book of the same name.
“It was featured almost as a character in the movie…When it was filmed there in 1959 it was just a sensation as it moved Hollywood to the U.P.,” says Fedynsky.
And several buildings hide surprises within their interiors, says the author. The Tuscola County Courthouse in Caro includes a striking 12-by-18-foot stained glass window depicting General Louis Cass meeting with Native Americans on the banks of a river. Genesee County’s simple, neoclassical structure built in the 1920s houses impressive murals depicting representational figures of law, local industries and landscapes.
Michigan’s County Courthouses also provides an often entertaining glimpse into the character of Michigan’s people, particularly its early non-Native American settlers, through well-chosen anecdotes.
In fact, the emphasis on the “house” portion of the word “courthouse” is what most surprised and pleased Fedynsky, a self-described “city boy,” while working on the project.
“In many ways the courthouse was the public house and had all kinds of things going on there, official and unofficial,” he explains. “I found some neat stories…in Antrim County people would drop their house plants off in the courthouse atrium and leave them there over the winter. At other courthouses people would gather for town hall meetings, county fairs and weddings. It was interesting to me to find out that these were very ‘homey’ places.”
“This is a book about inanimate buildings, but really it’s the story of the people who conceived of these courthouses, built them and maintained them,” Fedynsky adds.
Where possible, Fedynsky wove in vignettes about notable trials, political battles of the day, county seat skirmishes and other historical anecdotes.
“What impressed me was the extent to which the buildings truly stand as symbols representing the best wishes and aspirations of the communities for law, order, truth, justice and the American way, and all that good stuff.
“Within and outside the courthouse walls there is a continuing narrative of Michigan’s people; the buildings tell the story of each corner of Michigan.”
Jean B. Eggemeyer owns communications and marketing firm Carillon Communications LLC, serving the business and non-profit communities.