The borders of a town may be defined by its streets, and its economy is found in the fields that surround it, but if you’re looking for its civic heart you’ll find it beating inside the walls of its county courthouse.
It was 1888 when the Trego County Courthouse was plotted in the center of WaKeeney’s city square. George R. Ropes, an architect from Topeka, had drawn up plans for a Queen Anne style Victorian building with an Elizabethan frontage. Upon completion the most prominent feature was a cupola imported from Europe that sat 100-feet high atop a tin roof. The main part of the building was ringed by a row of paired windows and peaked false fronts over the entryways, providing a grand look to the overall design.
Inside, the original pair of staircases still flank the east and west doors. The rich, dark wood used for the construction of the stairs was continued throughout the building, including in the courtroom on the top floor where you’ll find the original judge’s bench still in use today. Downstairs in the basement, the now retired jail still sports the unique flat bars and specially designed lock that were installed at the time of construction.
The courthouse went through a transformation in 1951 and 1952, when it was decided the roof should be removed after having suffered irreparable damage and, at the same time, an update to the look of the exterior could be achieved, turning it into a mid-century style building with a profile of straight lines and ninety-degree angles. The prominent window spositioned over the entryways were also bricked over with a large stone mural of an eagle in flight surrounded by the words “Trego County Courthouse” above and below.
In 1974, our beautiful courthouse became the setting of a Hollywood movie, when Peter Bogdanovich, Ryan O’Neil and Tatum O’Neil filmed Paper Moon in several rooms of the courthouse. Some say those scenes didn’t make the final cut, but look closely at the point in which the father/daughter bunko team escapes the jail and you might see them fall down what appears to be a very familiar staircase.
The current look of the Trego County Courthouse came to be in 2012 when a new roof was added. It was decided to pay homage to Ropes’s Victorian design and bring back a version of the original peaked roof. Inside the building, the Courthouse’s layout has remained the unchanged since its construction, which makes it one of the oldest buildings still in operation in Kansas today.
Today, the courthouse continues to be the center of civic activity in Trego County. Next time you’re in WaKeeney explore the beautiful craftsmanship of prairie architecture at the Trego County Courthouse!