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SIOUX CITY -- Descendants of the man who designed the Woodbury County Courthouse a century ago are expected to attend  special celebration for the building in May.

Famed architect William Steele continues to be warmly remembered for his role in creating an architecturally distinctive place.

Steele, who lived in Sioux City for a quarter century, designed many of the city's most prominent buildings, including the Davidson Building, the Livestock Exchange Building and the Everist house near Grandview Park.

"(Steele was) always consumed by work, not as an workaholic, but as a person who was always trying to improve Sioux City, to put Sioux City on the map," Richard Guy Wilson, of the University of Virginia's department of architectural history told the Journal in the 1990s.

County officials have set a lot of ways to celebrate the courthouse in centennial activities for May 1-5. The Steele-designed courthouse succeeded the former county headquarters that had been used since the 1870s at the southeast corner of Sixth and Pierce streets, which is now the location of the Orpheum Building.

As time has gone on, people continue to laud Steele's role in making a magnificent courthouse, which sprawls over eight stories with artistic flourishes.

The Woodbury County Courthouse is known for its Prairie School design, with intricate terra cotta, figures made by sculptor Alphonso Iannelli, and large murals constructed around themes of justice and agrarian life.

Steele was chosen as architect in January 1915, and preliminary sketches were made that March. Accounts of that time say Steele originally submitted drawings that depicted a Gothic Revival design.

That was considered atypical for the time, when the norm was for courthouses to have evenly-sized floor space made of stone or granite. Steele conceived of a facade with specialized Roman brick, placing sculptures above entrance and a large eagle sculpture on the eighth floor.

Some business leaders blasted Steele's ideas as too experimental, and an association of lawyers questioned the size of individual courtrooms. But construction trades workers defended the Steele concepts, noting the Roman brick could be made in Sioux City and provide many good jobs.

"This comes at a time when Sioux City was growing tremendously, growing astronomically. There was a lot of new wealth and they wanted to show it off," Wilson said.

The Woodbury County Board of Supervisors in December 1915 unanimously voted to proceed with Steele's design. It included two broad bottom floors, with a dome above a rotunda, and a tower look for six upper floors.

The style Steele embraced, called Prairie School, developed in the 1890s. It came to reflect a Midwestern sense of design, color, while economically utilizing space.

The courthouse opened in May 1918 at a cost of $825,641, or approximately 50 cents per square foot. Historic architect Pete Franks recently said the courthouse is the finest architectural building in Iowa, with a value from $80 million to $100 million.

A 1921 piece published in "The Western Architect" lauded the magnificent courthouse, including this passage: "The effect upon entering the rotunda, no matter how disagreeable the weather outdoors, is that of a delightful, radiant warmth. Photographs cannot do more than faintly suggest the glowing color."

The courthouse displays brick facades, bordered by granite at the base, with polished quartize tile, with stained glass windows and bronze doors and grills. Elaborate terra cotta trim decorates the exterior. Above the west doors, an immense figure symbolizes the Spirit of Law.

The interior of the building is decorated with a series of murals by John Warner Norton on the main floor. Four murals represent a primitive court, rural farm life, urban life and a tribute to the soldiers of World War I. 

Steele was born in 1875 in Springfield, Illinois, and got a degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1896.  He originally worked for Louis Sullivan, a leader in the Prairie School movement. Steele worked in Pittsburgh for three years, then moved in 1904 to Sioux City, which was booming at the time.

Calling Sioux City from 1904 to 1928, he raised four daughters and two sons while living at 2512 Jackson St. A devout Catholic, he also designed many churches in the city. He moved to Omaha in 1928 and worked there until after World War II. He died in 1949, and was buried in Sioux City.

The Woodbury County Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1996. As some modernization changes have been made, county officials have been careful to keep the historic nature of the building intact, working through a process subject to review by the State Historical Society of Iowa and National Park Service.

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County & Education Reporter

Government and education reporter.

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