The newly renovated courthouse square honors county history and geography.
➼ If you’ve walked or driven down High Street in the past year, you’ve likely noticed a big change in one of Morgantown’s most prominent streetscapes. The Monongalia County Courthouse square, situated at the corner of High Street and Chancery Row, has served as an epicenter of civic and social life since before Morgan’s Town was established in 1785. The red brick, Romanesque-style courthouse we see today is the fourth to occupy the site and wasn’t constructed until 1891, following courthouses built in 1784, 1802, and 1848. Courthouse square has hosted concerts, farmer stands, political protests, street fairs, and even—until 1818—a public whipping post.
The square has continued to host civic events, markets, and concerts through the decades as well as serving as the main point of public entry to the courthouse and all of its county administrative offices and departments. But in 2016, the trees that had shaded—and obscured—the square for decades had become riddled with disease and were beginning to rot. County commissioners worried about other potential safety hazards and barriers to accessibility, too. Recognizing the square’s important role in the character of downtown, the Monongalia County Commission set aside funding to make it more accessible, safe, and welcoming. An important aspect of the project was the addition of a ramp to the main courthouse entry doors for those with limited mobility. The Mills Group, an architecture firm based in Morgantown, was selected to create a master plan and carry it out.
“The Mills Group saw the project as an opportunity to create a design that not only better served the community and downtown but also honored the history of Monongalia County,” says Mills Group Managing Principal Michael Mills.
Mills Group removed the existing paving and planter beds and installed a sub-grade radiant heat system. That prevents ice and snow buildup on the walkways during Morgantown’s frosty winter months and also saves the county on labor to maintain the plaza and extends the life of the materials. The new paving also incorporates a striking glass scale replica of the Monongahela River, flush to the brick and concrete pavers and lit from below with color-changing LED lights. The glass river terminates at a new veterans’ memorial that houses bronze plaques that were dedicated in the past. “I especially love the river component,” says Mills. “It’s a great geospatial feature that serves as public art that draws people downtown.”
At the Walnut Street entrance to the square, a timeline engraved in the pavers highlights important events in the history of the county. The timeline ends at an interpretive sign offering a brief history of the courthouse square and, beside it, a 3D model of the courthouse and surrounding county buildings gives a unique perspective on the downtown area. The bronze model, along with a bronze county seal, was sculpted by local artist Jamie Lester. He also created a rhododendron topper for the fountain that historically occupied and was returned to the square. Although the fountain had been moved to a park in Westover in the 1960s, a Mills Group employee out for a run in 2017 recognized the feature from historic photographs and the two cities worked out a return. The upgraded square also includes new plantings and trees to replace the overgrown and blighted ash trees that once made the courthouse difficult to locate.
“The new Monongalia County Courthouse Square has blessed our citizens with many historical and educational opportunities presented in an amazing portfolio walkway,” says Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom. “The river walk and nightly light show has added a new dimension to our downtown. The remembrance of our county veterans, who gave their lives, is now accessible for all to see and is clearly an emotional asset to our county. We are thrilled with the final design and end product.”
Although the courthouse square had become an unsightly and unwelcoming focal point, the recently completed upgrades have brought new life to High Street and the courthouse while honoring the site’s remarkable history. The safer, more inclusive design ensures that the courthouse square can continue to serve city and county residents for many decades to come.
written by Paula McClain