By the 1920s, Macomb County had outgrown its third courthouse, and in November of 1926, voters approved a 5-year, 1-mill tax for a new building. The old courthouse was torn down in November 1930 by local men whose names were drawn from the county’s poor list, and county offices were temporarily housed throughout the town. Many departments relocated in the newly built Price Building, known today as the Macomb Daily Building.
Bids were taken for a new building in 1931 at the height of the depression. St. Clair Shores architect George Haas and general contractor Otto Misch were chosen to build the new facility at a cost of $700,000. Skilled workers were paid 50 cents an hour and unskilled workers 30 cents. The name was changed from the Court Building to the County Building to reflect the different departments the new facility would house.
The cornerstone laying was in July of 1931, with the building scheduled to open on Jan. 1, 1932. By September, architect Haas had not been paid and sued the county for fees. By October, the county ran out of money. County supervisors cut employees’ pay by 10 percent, with the exception of their own pay. Work ceased on the building with no roof and no funds to weatherproof what had been completed, and it stood unfinished for 18 months.
Many residents were angered with the thousands of county tax dollars sited for a new building while their families went hungry, even though the county could not legally use the building fund for any other purpose. The southern end of the county held the most poor, while farmers in the northern end managed fairly well. The Communist Workers Party of Macomb, made up predominantly of Warren residents, began making demands at supervisors’ meetings for money and food, and mob violence forced law enforcement to be present at all their meetings. County Poor Commissioner John Schelling was in his office when he was stabbed in the chest with a knife by a distraught unemployed father.
Construction was renewed in 1933. Eighty percent of the 167 workers used were locals, with a waiting list of over 200 men. The building began to emerge as the exterior was completed. The Art Deco structure was given a military motif, and the 13-floor building was topped with eight granite heads. Facing Selfridge Air National Guard Base is an aviator and a WWI doughboy. A sailor and a marine were erected on the Cass side, and an American Indian and revolutionary soldier are on the front and back of the building. Original plans called for a likeness of Christian Clemens and Alexander Macomb, but they were not able to find a likeness of either of them.
Mountain goat heads jut out from the lower floors. Four bronze plaques – a man sowing grain, a surveyor, a seaman and a farmer also grace the structure. Two stone plaques are on the front of the building – the one on the left stands for justice while the one on the right is called the recorder. According to Haas, “a bronze tablet was to be placed at the entranceway where the names of the honored soldier and sailor dead of the county were to be engraved,” but county supervisors later placed their own names there instead. Terracotta flowers outlined the building underneath the figureheads, but were removed around 1964 when they began to fall on pedestrians.
The second building dedication was held June 5, 1933. With the exterior and the first five floors finished, a few departments moved into the facility. The sixth, seventh, eighth and part of the ninth floors were completed next, primarily with funds from the Civil Works Administration. Money was also received from the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration.
The building was completed, not floor by floor, but room by room, at a cost of $619,204. The Veteran’s Administration donated $17,000 in 1935 from the balance of the war fund to complete their offices. Judge Reid’s court fines and state refunded jury funds finished the third, fifth and seventh floor courtrooms, which used the staggered floor concept that mixed high-ceiling courtrooms with support offices with standard-height ceilings.
The city of Mount Clemens paid for the sixth floor and was given a 17-year lease for themselves and their police department. The Road Commission’s 11th floor was finished with Democratic offices on one end of the hall and the lone Republican on the other end. The building was paid off in 1944, and in 1947, half of the 12th floor was completed, and a room on the 13th floor was made over as a library.
Several renovations were completed over the years including the construction of the intermediate courtroom floors in 1973, replacement of the manually operated elevators in 1974, the addition of air conditioning in 1975 and the addition of a computer room in 1980.
Three clocks were to be installed above the building’s entranceways, but were omitted due to lack of funds. The blank receded squares still stand empty today, awaiting the finishing touch to its historical structure 80 years after its birth.
On April 17, 2013, in a twist of irony, Facilities & Operations Director Lynn Arnott-Bryks met with Chief Deputy County Executive Mark Deldin at 10 a.m. that day to discuss up-coming renovation plans for the building at the exact time an electrical fire broke out in the facility. Building restoration is expected to take two years and over 200 county employees have been temporarily relocated throughout the city and in other county facilities.
Cynthia S. Donahue is a historian for Macomb County Facilities and Operations. This is an updated version of an article featured in Macomb Matters in May 2013.