Ghost of Courts Past: The Story behind Washington’s Oldest Courthouse

Island County Courthouse

In the July/August issue of NWLawyer (now Washington State Bar News), Andrew Bergh pointed out in his excellent article, “Washington’s Historic Courthouses—Through the Lens: Attorney-Photographer Explores the State,” that the beautiful 1887 courthouse in Columbia County is the oldest working courthouse in the state. While Bergh gave a fascinating glimpse of Washington’s legal history, there is actually much more to the story of Washington’s true oldest courthouse.

The oldest standing building that has ever been occupied as a courthouse in Washington is situated on Whidbey Island in Island County. Much of the information for this article came from the late historian Jimmie Jean Cook’s seminal 1973 book, A Particular Friend, Penn’s Cove, which is still in print and available at the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville. It is a study of the non-Indigenous settlers, claims, and buildings of Central Whidbey Island. As a result of Cook’s work, many of the homes and other structures on Central Whidbey Island were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1978 Congress of the United States established the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

The Commissioners of Island County, WashingtonTerritory, held their first meeting at the home of John Alexander shortly after its construction in or near Coupeville in 1853. Alexander and his wife, Frances, were Irish emigrants. They were among the first non-Indigenous settlers in Island County, which at that time encompassed what are now Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, and San Juan Counties, as well as present-day Island County.

The commissioners continued to meet in various private homes and commercial buildings for some time thereafter. One of these buildings was the general store constructed in 1855 by Lawrence Grennan and Thomas Cranney at Coveland, a small settlement at the head of Penn Cove.

In August of 1869, the commissioners determined that Coveland was the county seat of Island County. In May of 1870, county offices were again situated at Grennan and Cranney’s store, and the county purchased this property for a courthouse in May of 1871. In May of 1880, the commissioners decided to sell the Grennan and Cranney building. However, it wasn’t until August of 1886 that the commissioners were finally able to sell the building for $150 at a public auction.

Miraculously, the Grennan and Cranney building still stands today, and is occupied as a private residence. In fact, its outer structure is largely unchanged from its original form, as evidenced by photographs taken shortly after its construction (one of which hangs in my courtroom) and its present appearance. It is the oldest standing building that has even been occupied as a courthouse in the state of Washington.

The judges and other officials of Columbia County, Lincoln County, and other counties have completed highly successful historic courthouse renovation projects, and they are to be commended for their efforts. Unfortunately, no such efforts were made to preserve Island County’s historic courthouse, constructed in 1891.

Following statehood in 1889, 80 residents of Island County petitioned the Board of County Commissioners for the construction of a “good and safe” courthouse building, and ultimately the commissioners chose a site in Coupeville. From then on, Coupeville was established as the county seat of Island County. The courthouse was constructed in 1891 by the renowned sea captain and builder, Howard Bartlett Lovejoy, my wife Elizabeth Hancock’s great grandfather. Lovejoy also built many of the stately Victorian and Queen Anne-style homes which still stand in Coupeville and the surrounding area, one of which is our family residence on Ebey’s Prairie south of Coupeville.

Regrettably, the beautiful and sturdy Lovejoy courthouse was demolished in 1949, a fact that continues to embitter many long-time Island County residents. As Jimmie Jean Cook states (with tongue in cheek):

The old county building was declared to be completely unsafe and it was torn down almost immediately to make way for old army buildings that were moved in for use as homes. The vault was so rickety that dynamite failed to dislodge it and it still stands as one of the sights of the town.

And there the vault stands today, over 70 years later.