By Mary A. van Balgooy
One of Rockville’s most beloved landmarks, the Red Brick Courthouse stands serenely at the corner of East Montgomery and Maryland avenues. It’s hard to believe that this prominent building was threatened with demolition not once, but numerous times over the past 50 years. Each time the Red Brick Courthouse faced the wrecking ball, however, Montgomery County residents, businesses, preservationists, and even schoolchildren rallied to save it—a history worth recounting and celebrating.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, courthouses served all functions of local government and were a focal point for the community. At the courthouse, residents obtained marriage licenses, recorded deeds, settled wills, paid taxes, attended trials, listened to traveling speakers, and bought dog tags. A symbol of government and judicial authority, courthouses were generally large and imposing and located prominently in the center of town.
The Red Brick Courthouse is not the first courthouse in Montgomery County, but it is the oldest. When Montgomery County was established in 1776, a tavern served as the first courthouse and the County seat was located at the rural but central crossroads of what was to become Rockville. Completed in 1891, the Red Brick Courthouse was the County’s fourth courthouse.
Designed in the Romanesque Revival style by Baltimore architect Frank E. Davis, the Courthouse is a three-story building constructed of red brick and ornamented with rough-cut stone, a style inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture and popularized in the United States by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Built at a cost of $50,000, the new Courthouse featured a vertical hierarchy with offices and record storage on the ground and first floors and the chief judge’s chambers and courtroom on the second floor.
As local government grew throughout the early 20th century, the County continued to enlarge its judicial buildings, completing a new facility, the Neoclassical Gray Courthouse in 1931, adjacent to the Red Brick Courthouse. Within 30 years, County officials were planning an expansion to the Gray Courthouse with “a distinct possibility … [of demolishing] the old building for replacement with a more efficient structure.” Architects and historians, however, convinced the County to save the Red Brick Courthouse.
In 1968, the issue arose again. Judges complained that the Red Brick Courthouse was “unsafe … unsightly, dirty … and smelly” and during the planning process for yet another, larger facility, the County Council allocated funds for demolishing the old Courthouse. Fortunately, protests from such diverse quarters as the American Institute of Architects, Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville city officials, children, historians, and the Sentinel newspaper persuaded the Council to reverse its opinion.
During the 1970s, the Courthouse was renovated and used by the Sheriff and the Circuit Court. When the new Judicial Center opened across the street in 1982, the Red Brick Courthouse ended nearly a century of continuous judicial use.
In the 1980s, the County renovated the Courthouse once more and “Friends of the Red Brick Courthouse” formed to raise money to restore the courtroom to its original appearance. In October 1991, County residents, businesses, the legal community, public officials, and preservationists gathered to celebrate the Red Brick Courthouse’s centennial with hopes that succeeding generations would appreciate and value this local treasure.
Nearly 20 years later, the Red Brick Courthouse serves as headquarters for Peerless Rockville and continues to serve as a working courthouse for Montgomery County. It is an enduring reminder that this place matters.