court historical1

A Brief History of the Court

Ms. Donna Ware, Historic Sites Planner for Anne Arundel County

In 1821, after 126 years of using borrowed buildings and rooms
for their courthouse, Anne Arundel County broke ground for a
courthouse of its own on Church Circle in Annapolis. Today this
historic building and its magnificent addition, completed in 2000,
stand prominently in the colonial town, an important
symbol of justice and a tribute to civic pride.

The Anne Arundel County Courthouse is the third oldest courthouse still in use in Maryland. Begun in 1821 and completed in 1824, the earliest portion of the courthouse was built to provide a safe repository for County records and meeting rooms for the County Court and its officials, a use that has continued to this day. The changing needs of government and evolution of the court system, necessitated several building campaigns, first in 1892-95, then in 1923-24, 1939 and 1949-52, and finally in 1994-2000, with construction of the recent addition.

Architecturally, the 1892-95 alterations and additions to the courthouse still define its overall character. Designed by Jackson C. Gott, an important Baltimore architect, the alterations dramatically transformed the appearance of the restrained, almost flat Federal Style building into a more graceful, three-dimensional Georgian Revival structure, featuring the prominent entrance tower, corner pavilions and the second floor courtroom. The new 240,000 square foot addition, designed by Washington, D.C. architects Spillis, Candela & Partners, Inc., represents a sensitive expansion, which echoes architectural elements of the old courthouse and the surrounding historic district of Annapolis. However, it is distinctly modern, housing one of the most technologically advanced court facilities in the United States.

Origins of the Courthouse

The history of Anne Arundel's court system dates to the origins of the county in 1650. On July 30, 1650, seven county commissioners were designated to "appoint courts to be kept within and for said county." At first they were held in Annapolis, but by the late 1670s, they were meeting at an inn kept by John Larkin, located at "the Ridge," a few miles south of South River. Larkin's inn was also the site of meetings of the Maryland General Assembly and Council during this time period. By 1684, the county court had moved to London Town, a newly designated shipping port on the South River, where the first courthouse was built. Early land records for London Town describe the building as a "25 foot" structure, presumably constructed of wood, measuring 25 by 25 feet.

The Move to Annapolis

In 1695, the Maryland General Assembly passed "An Act for setting Anne Arundell County Court at the Porte of Annapolis within the same County." This coincided with the move of the state capital from St. Mary's City to Annapolis. In an effort to save the county the expense of constructing a new courthouse, the county court was given space in the new State House. Built in 1697, the first State House was a two-story brick edifice measuring 46 by 22 feet. A portion of the loft was set aside for the County Clerk. For the next 126 years, the county courts used the State House and an associated building on State Circle for the administration of justice. This use was interrupted temporarily by the 1704 fire of the State House, which destroyed most of the county records. A new State House was built, serving both the state and county governments until 1769 when the present State House was constructed. In that year, the General Assembly designated a building known as the Conference Chamber or Old Armory which stood adjacent to the State House, for use as the Anne Arundel County Courthouse. However, in 1819, the state terminated that arrangement, ordering the county to remove their records. Faced with the problem of not having a place for the courts to meet, Anne Arundel County citizens petitioned the Maryland General Assembly asking:

...has not Anne Arundel County as good a right to have its courthouse as any other county in the State?
After two petitions, the Assembly authorized construction of a courthouse. They appointed twelve commissioners with the authority to purchase land and contract for construction of the building.

A New Courthouse

Initially, $12,000 was borrowed for purchase of the Church Circle site and construction of the building. In 1821, a T-shaped plan building, housing a courtroom and offices for the Sheriff, Clerk and Register of Wills was finally begun. The design incorporated contemporary fire-proof construction features, including masonry groin-vaulted offices on the first floor, similar to those designed by the prominent architect, Robert Mills for the Charleston, S.C. Records Office, in 1822-27. However, in 1822, additional funds were requested to furnish and complete the building. By February 1823 the courthouse was in use when the Register of Wills moved the records into the new "fire proof office." By March of that year the Levy Court was meeting in the new building and finishing touches were completed in 1824.

In 1841, David Ridgely, Maryland State Librarian, described the courthouse in his Annals of Annapolis:

The Courthouse is quite a modern edifice, and stands on the south-west of the church circle. As you enter there is a spacious hall, on each side of which are two commodious offices. The one on the right hand is occupied by the register of wills, and the other by the clerk of the county. Immediately in the rear of the clerk's office, is the sheriff's, and at the end of the hall is the courtroom. This is a fine, spacious room, and well suited to the purposes to which is is appropriated. On the second floor are the jury rooms, surveyor's office, and rooms used by the commissioners of the county. The front roof of the building, compared with the rear, exhibits the appearance of wings. It is enclosed by a brick wall, surmounted by a neat wood railing.

The "modern edifice" referred to by David Ridgely was radically altered in 1892-1894 with the addition of the existing projecting pavilions, entrance tower and cupola. Flanking wings were added at the rear creating an H-shape plan. The courtroom was moved from the first floor to its present location on the second floor. Designed by Jackson Coale Gott, a Baltimore architect, these changes still define the architectural character of the courthouse.

Expansion and Renovation

Further expansion occurred between 1923 and 1925 and again in 1939. A large Colonial Revival wing, designed by Earle S. Harder and Leonard Dressel, Jr., local architects, was built between 1949 and 1952. Extending from the southeast corner of the earlier courthouse and facing South Street, it held courtrooms, the land records office, and other court offices. In November 1997, it was removed to make way for a new courthouse facility, initiated in 1994. Designed by Spillis Candela & Partners, Inc., the massive 240,000 s.f. addition extends from the rear of the original building, filling the block between South and Franklin Streets.

The 19th century courthouse has been preserved and still functions as the primary entrance to the new facility. Just as the original twelve courthouse commissioners sought to construct a "modern edifice" in 1821, so did county officials in 1994 when they initiated construction of a state-of-the-art courthouse facility, one that not only evokes the architectural character of historic Annapolis, but provides the citizens of Anne Arundel County with the very best of courthouse technology and the dispensement of justice.

Courthouse Timeline

  • 1650 Seven county commissioners were designated to "appoint courts to be kept within and for said county."
  • 1670's Court held at an inn kept by John Larkin near South River
  • 1684 Court moved to London Town. First Courthouse.
  • 1695 Annapolis designated setting for Anne Arundel County Court.
  • 1697 Court located in loft of new State House.
  • 1769 Present State House built. Courts moved to adjacent building.
  • 1819 County citizens petition Maryland General Assembly for a county courthouse.
  • 1824 First Courthouse in Annapolis completed.
  • 1892-94 Pavilions, entrance tower and cupola added.
  • 1923-25 Expansion.
  • 1939 Expansion.
  • 1952 Colonial revival wing completed.
  • 1994 Construction of a state of the art courthouse initiated - groundbreaking ceremony held October 21, 1994.
  • 1997 Court employees move into Phase I building.
  • 1998 Construction begins on Phase II building and renovation of historic 1824 building.
  • 2000 Courthouse Dedication Ceremony held May 5, 2000 opening full building.

Click here to view a historic roster of all judges of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. (Adobe .pdf file)

"A Courthouse of It's Own" is a 20 minute video documenting the history of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County.