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Go behind the lens with Missouri Life photographer Katie Bell. This summer she shares her adventures as she travels around the state.
Photographing courthouses might not seem riveting at first, I know. But, I’ll tell you that I find county courthouses interesting, and they should interest you, too. Missouri Life has put me to the task of photographing and researching unique county courthouses in Missouri. That’s a selection of 115 in total, including the independent city of St. Louis. A lot to sift through, but I think I’m the right person for the job.
Architecture has always interested me. Although my childhood dreams of becoming a child, librarian, singer, or real estate agent had little to do with buildings (save for maybe that last one), the interest in buildings and their details has never left me. I still consider that profession to this day, to mix and match with my photography and journalism if it pleases me.
And old buildings have history. I don’t know what it is about the deceased and the past, but they are fascinating. Ghost Hunters anyone? Every vacation I go on there’s a haunted old mansion to tour or ghosts to hunt, sometimes both. I guess the way I would describe this fascination we have with these things stems from a fascination with ourselves. In all honesty, every time I go some place full of history, I wonder what the world around me now will look like in say, two hundred or one thousand years. What would a historical tour say about my generation? (That is, if they even still care to go on tours.)
Try as we might to distance ourselves from the past, whether it be our own history or the history of others, there’s this persistent ancestral tug that beckons us to look closer at our origins, what we used to be, and how we came to be the way we are today. All of the advances in the world can’t distract from the wonder of our origins.
Wow, I got all of that out of some old buildings?
Well, this is what you should get out of this post: We leave behind buildings, scrolls, and images to communicate something about ourselves to future generations. These courthouses, like many aging structures, hold stories, meanings, and mystery.
For example, the Phelps County courthouse in Rolla, was a Confederate and Union stronghold in the Civil War. It has been used as a hospital, jail, and a quartermaster store. I can only imagine the ghosts haunting that place.
In Boone County, the current courthouse is actually the third, but the remains of the second still stand, aligned with the columns on the University of Missouri’s campus. Locals preserved and restored the columns of the second courthouse.
I can still remember how I felt the first time I saw the columns when I moved to Columbia in 1999. The two sets of columns facing each other from several blocks away felt eerily comforting, if those two words together make sense. Remnants of a time past, one survived a fire and the other, remnants of a torn-down county seat. oth were saved by locals who admired them.
I can see the incredulousness of it, the love for stone structures, but when I see them winking at each other from a distance as if to say, “We made it!” I can understand why they were protected—to let us in the future know that their mark had been left, and it had been left for us. How we interpret their meaning is up to us, and that’s the exciting part of it: no single interpretation is correct.
We just have to know the option is there, and we have the opportunity to leave behind meaning as well … or maybe just mystery.