24.1.11

JURY DUTY: Interior Decoration on Trial

I recently spent a long day in the Hancock County Courthouse in Ellsworth, Maine, as part of a jury pool.  I wasn't selected for a jury, but while there I spotted a crime that should be on trial, though I'm certain that I could not be an impartial juror, so egregious is this case to my delicate sensibilities.  But back to that crime in a moment, while we take a brief detour before exposition.


The Public Library, built as the home of early 19th century builder Seth Tisdale

Ellsworth is a pleasant town, not high style, the sort of place where people put on pancake breakfasts and bake sales and hold raffles to raise money for good causes.  Most of the population is neither desperately poor nor obscenely rich, giving the small city a particularly homogeneous tone.  Politics tend toward the conservative side, to the irritation of the more liberal but less populous coastal villages that satellite it and share a  legislative district.  As Route One passes through Ellsworth, beginning the last hundred or so miles of the long trip up from Key West before ending at the Canadian border, it is lined with strip malls and convenience stores, making it the retail hub of the area.
The old jailhouse between Library and Courthouse, now the home of the Ellsworth Historical Society
Courthouse, Congregational Church, and City Hall
The City Hall was designed by Philadelphia architect Edmund B. Gilchrist as part of a city renewal effort after a 1932 fire destroyed part of downtown.  The designn of the building, with its beautiful details, reflects a mid-Atlantic sensibility.  Originally, the cupola and roof were a beautiful verdigris copper, replaced in recent years by the deadly brown now seen, and the building was given a certain insouciance with white shutters, now long gone.  
Uphill on State Street, bordering the Union River and overlooking the mostly brick downtown, is a small cluster of handsome civic buildings, with a magnificent Greek Revival Church rising above them.   
The first Congregational Church of Ellsworth, one of Maine's finest Greek revival buildings, designed in 1846 by Benjamin Deane of Bangor, and built by Thomas Lord, a talented carpenter/carver/architect from Blue Hill.

This is the scene that greeted me on a cold gray day, as I parked the car  at the courthouse to report for Jury Duty.  Not having a particularly criminal streak (well, beyond traffic offenses), I hadn't been in the main courtroom since my last time on jury duty about 20 years ago.  Up the wide flight of granite steps I went, and inside noted how utilitarian the interior is---no Tweed courthouse splendor for Down East Maine--no marble columns, no terrazzo floors, no central rotunda.  I climbed the very ordinary flight of stairs to the second floor, signed in, and walked into the courtroom, prepared for a very ordinary day. Instead, I saw evidence of a crime that wasn't on trial, but should have been.

The County Courthouse, also rebuilt after the fire.
A fragment of the original buff and marbelized black linoleum at the top of the stairs, meeting the institutional tan linoleum that has replaced it in the corridors.  I've reached an age where I realize that very few things ever get better in older buildings.
  The courtroom is a handsome room---very Ogden Codman in its details, paired Corinthian pilasters flanking tall arched windows, and a handsome cornice.  The last time saw the room, it was an institutional beige (or was it gray?), with long straight dark green curtains of the fireproof variety (or were they maroon?) .  Dignified, dull.  Well kiddies,  that was last time.


This time, what greeted me was a perky color scheme of pink and white, with green carpeting, and most gobsmacking of all, floral curtains.  It wasn't quite what I was expecting.  God knows how, God knows why, but the Maine District courtroom had been cheerily redecorated in best bed and breakfast style--or at least what I think of as bed & breakfast style.  You actually couldn't pay the Dilettante to stay in a bed & breakfast. Well, maybe if it were in Venice.  But you'd have to buy the ticket too.  But I digress:  The pink was that Gawd awful pink, hovering between dusty rose and dried Pepto, that was popular in all the worst waiting rooms and mid-range hotels 20 years ago.

The trim and molding were a very creamy ivory white.  The cheap carpet was a shade of green that doesn't occur in nature.  Holding it all together were those curtains.  Oh yes, those curtains--unlined, in a chintz pattern of dogwood in blush pink and green on an ivory ground, they were the glue that held this remarkable scheme together. They were very perky, tied back with jaunty insouciance.  I hate perky, although I'll tolerate insouciance just because I like saying it.  I don't know who manufactured the fabric, but I can safely guess that it wasn't Brunschwig et Fils.  These looked as if they had been bought in bulk at a sheet sale at Macy's--20 years ago (um, not that I'd know, of course...).  Whoever had done this had even hung a pair of those curtains in the shallow arched recess behind the judge's chair. So much for the dignity of the court.
Two false windows in the courtroom are elegantly mirrored to maintain continuity in the design giving a rather  ballroom atmosphere.  The mystery, however, is why these false windows have roller shades, when the real windows don't?  The evidence is inconclusive. The other mystery is why, when three windows were blocked by expansion beyond, they were merely covered with plywood, rather than mirror paned also.  Things really don't improve when old buildings are altered.

This was definitely a 'What Were They Thinking?' moment, and curious, I asked around, but could not find out who the guilty party was.  Maybe a judge's wife---'Honey, I know just the thing to brighten up that dreary old courtroom of yours'----or the wife of a county commissioner, maybe?   But that's just hearsay and speculation.  Not enough for a jury to convict---it may have even been a professional job---but whoever is guilty, they forgot Elsie de Wolfe's first rule:  "Suitability, suitability, suitability".

The judge may not be given to flowery statements, but the curtains behind his bench are another matter
The evidence is overwhelming.  I pronounce the defendant guilty of Decorating Under the Influence.

27 comments:

Susan Adler Sobol said...

"between dusty rose and dried Pepto" What a perfect choice of words! Your descriptions are always wonderful whether you are describing a fabulous building, room or garden or a travesty of design. I always learn something from your posts.

Anonymous said...

Well, I've never seen any legal-type venue decorated quite that way, so maybe it deserves half a point for originality?

But I'd like to award this blog's author 100 points and let out another heartfelt LOL for the idea of those curtains' having a "jaunty insouciance". I definitely plan to steal that one, so Thanks!

Hels said...

At least the town got its major pieces of architecture right - the church, library, town hall etc are all very well designed and respect the regional taste. You can always repaint a dodgy interior.

Paul Gervais de Bédée said...

Love it! By the way, there are some very chic B&Bs in Europe, but I never stay there either. And by the way again, I saw your guest post on NYD, congratulations! That's a big recognition.

The Devoted Classicist said...

Although there is a I-would-not-have-believed-it-without-pictures Curtain Violation of the worst order, we must give thanks that the architecture was not altered.

Mrs. Blandings said...

I am so glad you got shots of this - my imagination did not do it justice.

Raina Cox said...

Someone let an admin loose with a $1000 budget.

Raina Cox said...

Correction: $250 budget.

Michele from Boston said...

"Things really don't improve when old buildings are altered." A truer sentence was never spoken. Maybe Country Curtains was having a sale? (And let me join in - especially after experiencing B&Bs in the Napa Valley - I hate bed and breakfasts, too.) I'm fingering whoever n Ellsworth does a good impression of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet). Why can't people just leave things be? Only you could make a day of jury duty into a fun posting. Thx.

Toby Worthington said...

I'm in full agreement with Susan Adler Sobol.
And now "Dried Pepto" will be added to the list
of scathing colour references. Give me Vomitesse
de la Reine any day of the week.
As for prettying up the court room, it must be galling
to be tried and convicted in an atmosphere that's meant
to evoke coziness.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Oh my.....those curtains especially seem totally inappropriate. The room itself has potential -but why pink and not all white or ivory? And green carpeting; Who's bright idea was that? I think your story is most likely. You're lucky to live in Maine, here in DC we get our mandatory jury duty every 2 years on the dot and our courthouse is worse, believe it or not - a concrete monstrosity from the 1970s.

home before dark said...

Maybe the decor is one of those cautionary tales "if you think this is bad, try prison."

Donna said...

Even with your advance warning, the first view of the courtroom-with-curtains was truly jarring! I'm inspired to turn my jury duty turn (tomorrow) into a post, but unfortunately they are sending me up to Lawrence! Maybe I shouldn't be so judgemental.....

Pigtown-Design said...

First, great piece in NYSD! It's such fun to see familiar names there.

Second, I had jury duty in Baltimore yesterday and was stunned by the truly hideous swagged curtains in the court-room. I however, didn't try to take pictures there, as I was assaulted by someone who objected to me taking a picture last week. What is it about bad curtains and courtrooms?

Third, stellar piece on Frog Dibnall.

Reggie Darling said...

Reggie felt a premonition when first reading this post that it was going to end badly. He roared with laughter when he came across the photos of the courtroom's loving-hands-at-home Waverly curtains. But then he started to feel rather sick, and is now desperately searching for that 16 year old bottle of Pepto he came across the other day...

Anonymous said...

We really shouldn't make fun of this sincere effort so publicly....

The plight of public buildings of this period is so very shameful and confusing. Don't you think? Its hard to understand how the same community who invested precious dollars commissioning a beautiful courthouse or library to elevate their self worth would later disregard this legacy as its in the way. They don't tear it down, they just sort erase all thats fine, and treat "beauty" as it no longer has meaning or matters to the towns identity.

Small town USA was given such an unbelievable bounty of beautiful public buildings in the first third of the 2oth century. We were spoiled with architectural riches -- why do we now treat them with such casual indifference?

Flo said...

DED, this painful post of yours has been online for 24 hours, surely you've heard something from the Hancock County Courthouse people by now, what did they say? My dream is they called and said "...and you can do better?"

YES WE CAN!

So don't hang up without telling them your forum will do a redesign gratis, a public service, [please].

The Sidekick said...

As an occasional visitor to the surrounding county courthouses, and a more frequent visitor to this one (in a professional capacity only!), trust me when I say that Ellsworth has gone particularly -- and peculiarly -- off track. The others are maintained in a suitably somber and conservative manner, including preserving many of the lovely details. One even has a wonderful WPA style mural of workers in various local occupations.
So although Hancock County has gotten it wrong all along the way,there is some hope in Downeast Maine!

Topaz said...

But wait...WAIT! Where are the dried flower arrangements? You KNOW there had to be dried flower arrangements once upon a time.

Acanthus and Acorn said...

I both enjoyed and was saddened to hear the detailed accounts of design offenses committed on an old building. I do this myself, but typically it is a conversation for one as others don't often understand the pain it causes. The pink was perplexing, but I must agree when I saw the floral bedsheets, I thought how does anyone keep a straight face while performing their civic duty?

Anonymous said...

This courtroom is a travesty. As a lawyer, I've been in hundreds across the country and I can say I've never seen anything like this. Those curtains alone are mind blowing. Usually, there is some degree of respect paid to what transpires in courtrooms and the decor errs on the sober side. Guilty!

The Ancient said...

Flo --

Dilettante hasn't heard back from the County for the obvious reason that they are too busy recalculating his tax assessment, revisiting his occupancy permits, checking on the plumbing at the shop, etc.

TDED --

If Thor wasn't already in the can, I would be badgering everyone I know to cast you as the lead.

Flo said...

"Dilettante hasn't heard back from the County for the obvious reason that..."

Better that than Frognall pinning him to the ground and peeling back his fingernails.

little augury said...

It is truly a crime and it's all been said and well. I would like to say- I love the detective tone this post and the FD Tales have taken you in- and Friday's post with another mystery. Also I add my public congratulations on the NYSD's adding you to there list of writers. You definitely have something to offer there. Look forward to more. Gaye

Beth said...

Oh the agony! I grew up in Ellsworth and am so embarrassed for the community! What are the town officials thinking? Surely some local decorator would like to take on the project for a little publicity? Anyone? The fake windows with flowered country curtains are excruciating even without taking in the pink walls and brilliant green carpeting. The exterior is fine-looking, and I'd like to see the interior reflect the pride of the community's history. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Only in Ellsworth. . .

Brook in Happy Town said...

Maybe the decor is part of the punishment for the guilty?