Walk around the Nassau County Courthouse building on Old Country Road in Mineola and the observant eye sees several things.
An imposing and solid-looking Beaux Arts-style structure with beautiful sculpted panels illustrating Nassau County life in the 1930s and lion heads wrap around all four sides of the building.
Giant stone eagle sculptures and copper tripods, turned green by time, guard the steps leading into the building.
Inside, tall columns and an open, naturally lit rotunda rival that of the Lincoln Memorial. That’s because Lawrence Lincoln, a protégé of the architect who planned the Lincoln Memorial, designed the Nassau County Court.
But unfortunately, some of the sandstone exterior is separating from the building, single-pane windows are rusted and leaking, parts of the façade are decaying and many of the ornamental designs are deteriorating.
“Our courthouse here in Nassau County needs TLC, “ said Brendan Brosh, a spokesperson for District Attorney Madeline Singas, whose office is in the building.
“We have a gorgeous rotunda and countless fossils are visible in the stone used throughout the building,” said Dan Looney, deputy executive assistant district attorney for litigation operations in the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office.
Looney, the unofficial resident historian and preservationist, is spreading the word about restoring the building to its past glory. He is leading the fight to get landmark status for the building, with the hope that certain federal and state funds can be used to fix the courthouse.
Restoration won’t happen easily. Looney is using all the skills and resources of a prosecutor trying a criminal case in order to find info on the materials, techniques and tools that were used in construction.
Original plans are nonexistent, as many were thrown out by the Public Works Administration in 1943 or destroyed in a large fire at Mitchell Field in 1974.
“The buildings are excellent examples of mid-20th century governmental architecture with many interior and exterior art deco style elements,” Looney said.
Those include original courtroom and rotunda chandeliers, light fixtures, judges’ benches and courtroom tables where attorneys sit.
“The stately and refined architecture of our county courthouse reminds us each day of the great importance of our judiciary and mission of serving the public,” said Nassau County Administrative Judge Thomas Adams.
The courthouse complex, once known as the Nassau County Civic Center, was built on the old Queens County Fairgrounds when Nassau was still part of Queens. It was planned and constructed as a Public Works Administration project, a Depression-era federal program that employed millions to build dams, bridges, hospitals and schools.
Construction started on the three-building complex in 1938, the cornerstone was laid in 1939 and building was opened in 1940. Furnishings were mostly manufactured in New York state, from companies long gone, including The Sikes Co. of Buffalo, which manufactured the courtroom furniture, Cutler Mail Chute Co. in Rochester and Edward Caldwell & Co. from Manhattan, the pre-eminent designers of light fixtures at the time.
Carver Albert Stewart, whose work graces buildings in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, created the 20 historic panels, four giant eagles that flank the steps and the two county seals on top of the two entrances to the courthouse.
Both civil and criminal cases were heard in the courthouse when it opened in 1940. Other county agencies were located in the two smaller buildings such as the health department, tax assessor, county clerk and treasurer.
Today, criminal cases are heard in the large courthouse at 262 Old Country Road and the smaller building at 252 Old Country Road. Nassau County Surrogate’s Court meets on the third floor of 262 Old Country Road.
Lincoln, the architect of the courthouse, was associated with Henry Bacon for 25 years and worked for his company on the Lincoln Memorial design in Washington, D.C. After 25 years with Bacon, Lincoln started his own architectural firm, first in Manhattan and later on Long Island.
The court is not Looney’s first involvement with historic preservation projects. In 1990, he became involved in the restoration of the Farmingdale Train Station. In 1995, Looney chaired the restoration and expansion of St. Kilian’s Church in Farmingdale.
“I view civic architecture as extremely important because it so much more than bricks and mortar,” Looney said. “I always wanted to restore the courthouse. I think it was an excellent example of civic architecture and was obviously a source of tremendous pride for the residents of the county when it was built, “ he added.
Sitting at his heavy wooden desk that belonged to County Executive Frank Gulotta in 1950, Looney said he viewed the building as “a gift of an earlier generation.”
“It was built during the Great Depression, yet they used high-quality materials and employed some of the most renown artisans of the day,” Looney said. The planning and construction cost approximately $2.6 million back in 1939.
“I think we have an obligation to take this gift of an earlier generation and as good stewards, ensure that it is able to be enjoyed by future generations and continue to be a source of community pride,” Looney said, as he thumbed through the “Official Guide to the New York State Building at the World’s Fair” that he purchased on eBay.
He’ll be working all weekend, searching yellowed newspapers and internet records for more clues on the building’s architects and construction.