Litchfield county courthouse tours reveal building’s history, preservation trust’s future plans – the register citizen

“Right now the entrance (of town hall) is from the parking lot in back,” said Schmidt. “The parking lot is half-empty since the courthouse closed, so the space is now there.” She said the plan would also include a new entrance from the rear of the building, where the elevator would be located.

Visitor and 50-year Litchfield resident Fred Tieman concurred. He said the conversion of the former courthouse into the new Town Hall is “a natural fit.” Said Tieman: “The current Town Hall is too small and cramped, and the copier is in the hallway.” He added, “This space is a great asset to the town.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Charles Gill received visitors in the second-floor courtroom.


In his 35-year career as a judge and more years as a public defender, Gill said that he has seen many cases in the storied room, including the infamous Peter Reilly murder case in the early 1980s as well as the first court case involving the use of DNA evidence (the “Panties in the Tree” case which involved the defense and acquittal of a man accused of sexual assault).

Gill, who retired on October 1, 2017, said the courthouse also hosted lighter fare. “We also had a series of “mock trials” for local high school students who dressed in 18th-century legal robes and used a lectern from Tapping Reeve,” he said, referring to the historic Tapping Reeve House and Law School, adding, “We also had 20 to 25 Chinese judges here on tours to show them how democracy works.”

Answering visitors’ questions, Trust member Schmidt said there are currently three options for a new or updated Town Hall. She said one option is to tear down the current Town Hall and start from scratch; the second, to enlarge the current Town Hall space. The third option would be to accept the former courthouse as the Town Hall. Schmidt said a renovation plan estimated at $4.9 million would include installing an elevator into the three-level building as well as installing a modern security system.

Ann Combs of Litchfield, who serves as secretary to Litchfield’s first selectman and serves on the Town Hall Review Committee, also attended the open house. Combs said she had previously reviewed the space with her fellow five committee members (with two alternates). “We need to assess our space needs,” said Combs. She added that the current Litchfield Town Hall holds only half the town’s offices, the others having been moved in 1986 to the Bantam School at 80 Doyle Road in Bantam.

“We have yet to see which options will be used,” said Combs. “We have facility price and operating costs to consider as well.” She said architect John Martin of Torrington has been enlisted in determining the space’s needs. Combs said also to be considered are moving costs and “soft costs” (a construction industry term that can include architectural, engineering, financing, legal fees, and other pre- and post-construction expenses).

Not every resident visiting the space supported the Town Hall’s move to the former courthouse. Diane Gillman of Bantam said she supported updating the space that the Town Hall currently uses in Litchfield and Bantam. Gillman said that the revenue generated from the Bantam location’s Probate Court and the Bantam Post Office is “a money-making proposition.”

The new Litchfield Judicial District Courthouse is located at 50 Field St. in Torrington, consolidating in one 188,857-square-foot building 11 courtrooms divided among the Litchfield Judicial District Courthouse; Torrington’s Superior Court for Juveniles; and Bantam’s Geographical Area 18 Courthouse. The new courthouse, costing $63,457,000, according to the DLR Group in charge of the project, was built on land once occupied by the Torrington company’s former Excelsior plant, where generations of workers made knitting needles for nearly a century. The new courthouse property includes an adjacent 29,200-square-foot parking structure for court employees and attorneys as well as a parking lot.

Torrington family law attorney Regina Wexler attended the open house. “To come back and see the empty space is bittersweet,” Wexler said. She said although air-conditioning and heating, not to mention tripping over electrical wiring while in high heels, were issues when arguing a court case in the former courthouse, there had been a sense of camaraderie between the lawyers and the judges.

“I am hoping the same camaraderie will be found in the new space, and steps by judges are being taken to achieve that,” said Wexler, who is also vice-president of the Litchfield County Bar Association, a group that commissions and houses the former courthouse’s oil paintings of past-serving judges. “We plan on hanging the paintings at the new courthouse, but it is a process,” she added.

According to the Preservation Trust, the former courthouse property achieved the status of a historical site by both the Borough of Litchfield’s National Register District and the state-designated Borough of Litchfield Historic District. Moving from another location since its inception in 1752, the courthouse called its home the commercial center of town since 1803.

Architect Robert W. Hill designed and built the current structure in Romanesque Revival style in 1889 following two ruinous fires in 1886 and 1888 that destroyed the town’s second and third wood courthouses. According to the State of Connecticut’s Judicial Branch website, the fourth and final courthouse was built with gray Roxbury granite in order to avoid any further calamities with a Franklin stove. A Seth Thomas clock tower was installed. After being introduced to the Litchfield community in 1890, the building served as the site for deciding court cases and jailing prisoners for many years.

Rory O’Shaughnessy, who had worked as a judicial marshal at the former Courthouse from 1986 to 2010, attended the open house. “This building didn’t have a metal detector until 1992,” he pointed out. “The judge at the time didn’t want to affect the small-town feeling of the place.” This in part changed when a former clerk brought in a fake hand grenade as a joke.

And what a history the courthouse has seen. The site was the place where the fate of horse thieves, will contesters, and legal fights the Scaticook American Indian tribe alike were decided. According to the trust, in 1912 the town hung a large “Welcome Veterans” banner across the front of the courthouse to welcome a U.S. Civil War veterans regiment during the dedication of the Camp Dutton marker, commemorating the farm fields where the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery Regiment assembled and trained in August and September of 1862. In 1914, the Litchfield Village Improvement Society paid for alterations to the building’s exterior and clock tower.

The land that the building sits on had been originally sold nearly 125 years agp with the clause that if the land was no longer used as a courthouse that it would revert back to the descendants of the original seller, the heirs of the Revolutionary War-era Moses Seymour, Sr. and Moses Seymour, Jr. It had been reported previously that the contemporary seller was George Beckwith, 79, of Missouri.

Litchfield residents and spouses John and Carole Gilbert visited the former holding cells in the courthouse’s basement. “The tour is wonderful and exciting,” Mr. Gilbert said. “This morning at church, we spoke with the only person we have met who remembers last time the Town Hall had moved.”