An old courthouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s biggest city, made me realize how much things change yet also stay the same.

I stumbled on the former Minnehaha County Courthouse during my first visit to Sioux Falls, in March. After a year and a half of living in South Dakota, I figured it was long past time to see the state’s commercial capital, where many local news stories originate.

After looking at the current county courthouse and the Sioux Falls federal courthouse from the outside – it was a Sunday, so both were closed – I noticed an old building with a clock tower nearby. A sign identified it as the Old Courthouse Museum.

I tried the main doors, which swung open. It turned out the place is open to visitors every day, and entrance is free.

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The old Minnehaha County Courthouse at 200 W. Sixth Street, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Construction on the three-story building began in 1889, and it opened as the Minnehaha County Courthouse in 1890. It was last used in 1962, when court and county business were moved to the current courthouse because of the need for more space.

The old courthouse was almost demolished to make way for a parking lot. Local college students spearheaded efforts to preserve the building, and it was turned into a museum in 1974, said Ben Devlin, an in-house historian.

A year earlier, the courthouse had been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the United States’ official list of historic places deemed worthy of preservation.

The building is described on the National Register nomination form as “the finest example of Richardson Romanesque architecture in South Dakota.” It is among the area’s few remaining structures made of Sioux Quartzite, a material used in the construction of many local public buildings and business establishments in the late 1800s, according to the document.

I spent most of my visit looking around the main courtroom. It was the first time I’d seen a courtroom with stained-glass windows and a balcony, which reminded me of Catholic churches. It now serves as a venue for social functions, such as weddings.

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The old courthouse’s main courtroom has two levels.

In the balcony, the rows of wood-and-metal folding chairs painted a picture of the way of life decades ago. The back of each chair had a built-in wire rack, where people can hang their coats or shawls. I imagine this was used year-round, when people got more dressed up to go out and about.

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The courtroom balcony features its original folding chairs.

The seats, when folded, revealed a pair of C-shaped wires underneath. A museum sign explained they were meant to hold men’s hats, while spaces underneath were designed to hold canes or “parasols.”

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The built-in wires behind and under the chairs were meant to hold articles of clothing, such as coats, shawls and hats.

I pictured the relatives and friends of victims and defendants who once occupied those seats, just like they do in courtrooms today. They would have been dressed in more formal clothing than the T-shirts, jeans and sneakers I see in courtrooms every day.

But I believe they carried the same gamut of emotions: anger, fear, disgust, anxiety, disbelief, shame, hope, grief.

One thought on “Seeing past and present in empty courtroom

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