Primitives: 15 Gothic Street, Episode One (Excerpt)

In the first installment of Joe McGinniss’s new Byliner Serial, 15 Gothic Street, he begins chronicling a year in the life of a county courthouse in Massachusetts.

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  1. There are, give or take, 3,141 county courthouses in the United States. Like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike.

    Architecturally, they vary from the colonial plainness of the courthouse in King William County, Virginia—built around 1725 and the oldest still in use in America—to the futuristic sweep of the Marin County Civic Center, in San Rafael, California, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

    Likewise, in terms of atmosphere, they are as varied as the populations they serve. Yet whatever their disparities, as former Massachusetts supreme court justice Paul C. Reardon has written, “the American county courthouses together have had a deep and lasting influence on the United States and its people. They have reflected the citizens whom, as inheritors of ancient law and tradition, they have served. They are … eloquent monuments to democracy. And what tales most of these courthouses could tell.”

    Courtrooms have told stories from the time of Socrates through the time of O. J. Simpson, and beyond. Every courtroom tells a new one every day. The courtroom can seem almost a secular cathedral—the judge presiding from on high, hats removed upon entering, spectators told when to sit and when to stand, a literal bar that confers special status on those permitted to stand or sit in front of it—but it is primarily a stage. The dramas that play out there are made all the more compelling by the fact that real lives are at stake.

    The late John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, sought out courtrooms wherever they went. “We’ve gone to courthouses in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, all over the world,” Dunne once told the New York Times. When asked why, Didion replied, “That’s where you hear people’s dramas.” A day in court, Dunne said, “is like watching the ultimate game show, the game being life itself.”

    It’s in the courthouse that we get a glimpse, as Edith Wharton wrote, “behind the social tapestry, on the side where the threads [are] knotted and the loose ends hang.” Michael Ponsor is a federal judge in Springfield, Massachusetts. When asked what he does for a living, he sometimes quotes Yeats, saying, “I work in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” And he’s in federal court, which is the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale’s compared with the rag-and-bone shop that is the typical county courthouse.

    But what’s “typical”?

    One could spend a year on statistical analysis designed to pinpoint the single courtroom in the bellwether county that most accurately reflects our nation as it is today. Or one could write the names of all the counties on slips of paper and toss them into a big hat and pick one. Neither result would be wholly satisfactory, because there is no such thing as a “typical” county courthouse, any more than there is a typical county.

    But what if one were to spend a year in one courtroom in one courthouse in one county that represented a mean between, say, the racial slaughterhouse of Chicago’s Cook County criminal court, the busiest in the nation, and the torpid miasma of a courthouse in the rural South? What tales might that courtroom tell?

    Take, for example, Courtroom 2 of Hampshire County Superior Court, located in the Hampshire County Courthouse, 15 Gothic Street, Northampton, Massachusetts, just over a hundred miles west of Boston.

    The building is a hulking pile of granite, four stories high, designed by Henry F. Kilburn in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, made famous by Henry Hobson Richardson. Along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Henri Sullivan (“the father of skyscrapers”), Richardson has been acclaimed by architectural historian James F. O’Gorman as one of “the recognized trinity of American architecture.”

    Among Richardson’s contributions to the urban American landscape are buildings as diverse as Trinity Church, in Boston, and the Marshall Field Wholesale Store, in Chicago. In the early 1870s, he designed the Hampden County Courthouse, in Springfield, Massachusetts, on which Kilburn’s Northampton structure, built in 1886–87, was closely modeled.

    The Hampshire County Courthouse occupies a full block of downtown Northampton. Though it’s far from Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner would immediately recognize it for what it is. Wrought-iron gates stand open on the Main Street side. A brick patio leads to the twenty-one stone steps you must climb to reach the main entrance. Standing at the bottom, you could be forgiven for imagining that the signs on the thick wooden doors at the top say, ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE. Instead they say, more prosaically, NO ENTRY.

    Today, access is around the corner via the 15 Gothic Street entrance, which leads to the metal detector in the lobby of the utilitarian 1976 addition to the building. District court, where misdemeanors are adjudicated, is on the second floor. Superior court, where the stakes are higher, is on the third. Former Hampshire County district attorney and district court judge Michael Ryan used to tell visiting schoolchildren that “district court is for people accused of being naughty. Superior court is for people accused of being evil.”

    One would not expect to find much evil in Hampshire County. Known for its five colleges—Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and the University of Massachusetts—Hampshire County seems on the surface to be the Lake Wobegon of Massachusetts, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” This may be an example of the phenomenon social psychologists term illusory superiority, but it’s a fact that almost 40 percent of the county’s adults have at least a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college—more than 10 percent above the national average.

    Total enrollment in the five colleges is more than 35,000—28,000 of whom attend UMass at its main campus in Amherst. Given such a large population of students, faculty, college administrators, and staff, it’s no surprise that Democrats outnumber Republicans almost five to one, and that Barack Obama received more than 70 percent of the vote in 2008.

    The Swedish opera star Jenny Lind visited the county seat, Northampton, in July 1851 and proclaimed it “the paradise of America.” The city’s official nickname today is Paradise City, and the website recently ranked it the most politically liberal medium-size city in America. (Its population is 28,500.) Nonetheless, sometimes there’s trouble even in paradise. And that’s when the stories begin.


    Preview more of Joe McGinniss's Primitives.

Originally published in Byliner, August 2012