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Artist completes sketch of Historic Howell County Courthouse


Artist Nate Billings has completed his sketch of the current Howell County Courthouse, which is located at the same site of Howell County’s third courthouse in the center of the square in downtown West Plains. 

The Howell County Court accepted the completed three-story brick building on Jan. 14, 1884, 44 years before an explosion caused extensive damage to the courthouse on April 13, 1928. The Gothic-style building, the courthouse’s third incarnation, was condemned and abandoned before being razed in 1933. 

Billings, of Pierce City in southwest Missouri, is sketching all 114 courthouses in Missouri. 

The Howell County Courthouse, at the center of Court Square, is the 13th courthouse Billings has sketched as part of a project he started a few years ago, after his friend Nick Haring, former Quill reporter, jokingly asked Billings to show proof he had visited every county courthouse in the state. 

Billings said he is also compelled to sketch each county courthouse due to the exciting and sometimes sordid histories behind the buildings.

“I delve deep into the history of each courthouse before the sketch, or sometimes after I do the sketch,” Billings said. 

Billings’ favorite courthouses he has sketched thus far are the Lawrence County Courthouse and Carthage Courthouse, located in Jasper County, which he describes as “beautiful, but also a daunting task to do art-wise because it’s so big.”

“The Lawrence County Courthouse is unique in that it is in its own open square, where some of the older buildings used to be, but they had to raze them, unfortunately,” he said. 

However, the public can still get a great view of the statute on top of the building. 

Billings said other courthouses are fun to sketch, like Bolivar’s courthouse, which is one of four, known as the quadruplets, that were built simultaneously.

“Many of the courthouses I am sketching right now are redone from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and around that time, the state was offering some money to redo county buildings,” Billings explained. “And they all hopped on the opportunity, especially since many of the courthouses were getting to the point that they needed to tear them down and replace them.” 



Billings said the history of the Howell County Courthouse is hard to trace past the late 1800s. 

Howell County was organized in 1857, but all records were destroyed in a fire in 1866.

Billings said an 1876 account, published in the West Plains Journal, describes a log cabin a mile east of West Plains where the first circuit court met. A small, wooden courthouse built in 1859 on the West Plains square was damaged in the Civil War in 1862. In the fall of 1863, guerrillas burned West Plains, devastating the community — not one person remained in the city, many having fled, but three years later, the county reorganized. 

Billings referenced another article written by Marian Ohman, University of Missouri Extension coordinator of arts history programs in Columbia, detailing the events behind the three-story gray building the public sees today. 

Ohman writes that after Howell County was reorganized, T.E. Britton built the county's second courthouse in 1869. Britton built the small, three-room, frame building about 24 by 30 feet in West Plains. The county appropriated $1,200 and paid Britton $755.50 for building the courthouse. 

“The building, located south of the square, still stood in 1885 and was used as a rental property. A $15,000 appropriation voted for in November 1882 financed the third courthouse for Howell County. At one time, the court considered placing the courthouse away from the square, but they finally opted for the center site,” according to Ohman. 

Nineteen-year-old architect Henry Hohenschild designed the courthouse and received $200 for his plans and specifications. He practiced for several years; among his courthouse designs are those of 11 or 12 Missouri counties, which Billings said he has noticed in the architectural design of many of the state's courthouses. 



“You will see a lot of these courthouses, like the Howell County Courthouse, are done in the gray stone, which is pretty common for this area,” Billings said of the current, fourth, building. 

However, Billings said the local courthouse is unique in that the top of the building is trimmed with triangles, which he has rarely seen in Missouri. 

Billings also notes that the doorways of the Howell County Courthouse are flanked, just on the right, by two ears, and the courthouse is similar to most of the county courthouses in Missouri that are also built on a level hilltop center. 

“Most of the courthouses are also built on a level hilltop center, so you can see that it slopes up. They’ve leveled out the building, and the hill kind of comes down around it. They did that on purpose to make the town squares,” Billings said. 

“It’s also kind of weird because most people think that all of the courthouses sit perfectly leveled, but it’s just an illusion, so when I’m sketching it, I have to compensate quite a bit for the settling of the ground and the hill itself going up and down,” he explained. 

Billings said Hohenschild designed the third iteration of the Howell County Courthouse as a three-story brick building with four similar facades, with the principal entrance to the Howell County Courthouse receiving additional embellishment at the ground level.

"The building measured about 65 by 65 feet and cost $16,600. The courtroom was on the second floor. The Mount Zion lodge finished the third floor in a manner similar to the rest of the building. G.W. Goodlander, Fort Scott, Kansas, contracted the building. Cornerstone ceremonies took place on July 4, 1883, and the court accepted the completed building Jan. 14, 1884," Billings said, citing Ohman’s article.

Ohman further writes that after an explosion on the nearby Halstead block significantly damaged the courthouse in 1928 which led to the third courthouse being condemned and abandoned in June 1935, county officials considered accepting the government's offer for help in constructing a new courthouse.

The explosion referenced is that of April 13, 1928, which destroyed the Wiser Garage on Main Street just east of the square, and the Bond Dancehall above it, killing 37 people and injuring at least 23 more.

“The committee moved with haste when they heard federal assistance might not be available much longer. Alternate sites to the small square were seriously considered before the court decided to keep the same location. Six years earlier the court had accepted plans from Springfield architect Earl Hawkins for a new courthouse. However, it was not until Nov. 8, 1935, that voters approved a $50,000 bond issue, which was matched by a federal grant of $45,000, making construction of a courthouse possible,” Ohman writes. 

“On Oct. 12, 1935, the court again turned to Hawkins as architect for the 82-foot-square, three-story, Carthage-stone building. It is not known whether or not the court used the same plans. L. H. Britton was the contractor. Final costs amounted to about $107,000,” Ohman continued.



Billings completed his sketch of the Howell County Courthouse in two hours. 

“It takes roughly two hours to sketch each courthouse, so by the time I finished this sketch, I have somewhere around 300 hours total just standing and sketching,” Billings said. 

Billings next headed to Alton to sketch the Oregon County Courthouse. 

Billings sketched the Christian County Courthouse, in Ozark, and Douglas County Courthouse, in Ava, before stopping in West Plains.

“I had planned to go to Doniphan, in Ripley County, but with the heat, I had to change my plan,” he said. “A lot of times, I have to plan around the weather, and if the weather disagrees, I won’t sketch the courthouse that day.”  

“I’m more dedicated to the project than just completing every single courthouse,” Billings said. 

To learn more about Billings’ venture to sketch the state’s 114 county courthouses, visit his blog. 

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