Cape Girardeau courthouse placed on National Register of Historic Places

Friday, November 12, 2010
The Common Pleas Courthouse in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Townspeople once gathered atop its high hill to watch as President William Howard Taft's 16-vessel flotilla drifted down the Mississippi River. An outlaw was pulled from its jail and lynched on Bloomfield Road. Inside its doors, a trial gained national attention when a white family forced 40 blacks to work the land at gunpoint three decades after the Civil War.

The Common Pleas Courthouse in Cape Girardeau has seen a lot in its 156 years.

Now it's seeing national recognition.

The courthouse, described by local historians as the centerpiece of Cape Girardeau's rich history, has gained a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse is at 44 N. Lorimier St.

"There's been a courthouse on that hill for almost as long as there's been a Cape Girardeau," said Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. "I think it's just one of the most historic spots in the city."

The designation comes after an application was prepared and sent by Steven Hoffman, Southeast's coordinator of the Historic Preservation Program. The designation is long overdue for the antebellum brick courthouse, which was built for $2,500 in 1854 on property donated by city founder Don Louis Lorimier, Hoffman said.

"The courthouse truly played a central role in so many aspects," Hoffman said. "It was really the centerpiece for community life here for a really long time."

Placement on the National Register will make the building, which is under dual ownership by the city and county, eligible for a wider range of grants for maintenance and upgrades, Hoffman said.

The building houses the home offices of both circuit judges of the 32nd Judicial Circuit, which includes Cape Girardeau, Perry and Bollinger counties, and two courtrooms as well as offices for a circuit clerk, court reporter and associate circuit judge.

While city and county officials were initially reluctant to allow Hoffman to apply for the designation, he finally convinced them that a listing does not inhibit them from making interior changes to the building. Earlier this year, county commissioners said the courthouse does not meet modern codes for earthquake protection. The designation does not extend to the courthouse annex, part of an old city library.

But both Hoffman and Nickell said the designation will tell others what they have long known -- that the courthouse is a local treasure.

"I cannot imagine Cape Girardeau without that courthouse on that hill," Nickell said. "It needs to be preserved and saved. If Cape Girardeau has a sense of place, that sense begins with the river and the courthouse."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

44 N. Lorimier St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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