A PUBLICATION OF THE MARYLAND JUDICIARYWINTER-SPRING 2010 vol. 13, no. 1
Standing in the center of Centreville is the oldest courthouse still in continuous use in the state, the sixth oldest still in continuous use in the entire nation. It is also the key feature of the 18th-century equivalent of a “planned community.”
Queen Anne’s County was established in 1706, and the Queen Anne’s County Courthouse and the town of Centreville date back to the 1790s. When the county seat was moved from Queenstown, the town and the courthouse were built together on “Chesterfield,” the plantation home of Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson. He gave the land and courthouse to the county, and on June 1, 1796, it was “taken, held and deemed to be the proper Court House of Queen Anne’s County.”
Judge Nicholson, who was Francis Scott Key’s brother-in-law, later became chief judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit (then Baltimore and Harford counties) and a judge of the Court of Appeals. He was also a member of the U.S. House of Representatives that decided the presidential race of 1800. The history that is told is that Judge Nicholson, though painfully ill, was carried onto the floor of the House, where he cast the deciding vote that made Thomas Jefferson the third President of the United States and his rival, Aaron Burr, Vice President.
(It is also said that it was Judge Nicholson who suggested the music for his brother-in-law’s poem, the “Star Spangled Banner.”)
Queen Anne's County Courthouse
is the oldest courthouse in the state
still in continuous use.
It opened its doors in 1796
Photo by Katherine Hager, chief deputy
Queen Ann's County Circuit Court
The courthouse is the core building around which Centreville was created. More than two centuries later, it still anchors the town square and community gathering place. The benches along the tree-lined paths are favorite spots to rest, especially on hot summer days, and the veterans memorials by the flagpoles in front of the courthouse are the site of commemorative events each Memorial Day.
Most people know the courthouse for its statue of Queen Anne, which sits along the path to the courthouse entrance. Less known is the gold painted eagle in the pediment at the top of the building. It is a replica of the wooden eagle, carved by an unknown patriotic craftsman, which graced the building when it opened. The original is on display inside the courthouse.
“It’s a privilege to work here,” said Clerk of the Circuit Court Scott MacGlashan. “It’s one of the most beautiful buildings, not just in the county, but in the whole state.”
Beautiful, however, does not always translate to functional. The lobby is small and has been fitted with security screening equipment. Witnesses, visitors, plaintiffs and defendants, sometimes in restraints, all pass through and wait in the crowded open area. In colder months, juries also must wait in the lobby whenever they are sent from the courtroom by Judge Thomas G. Ross, the county administrative judge.
“It does create security issues,” Judge Ross said. “The current layout is far from ideal for providing for the safety and security and ease of access for our citizens.” The building houses the Circuit Court, the Clerk’s Office, licensing and land record office, meeting rooms, ceremonial courtrooms, pro se clinic space, the master’s office and courtroom, and more. Several of the same few rooms serve many functions, depending on the day of the week or month.
The struggle of fitting form to function is part of this classic building’s history. The courthouse underwent a major expansion after the Civil War to rebuild the structure “on a scale which will change it from one of the most inconvenient to one of the most desirable of our county buildings." The rebuilding cost $6,800, and was the last time the courthouse changed its exterior appearance in any significant way.
Take a video tour of the Queen Anne’s County Courthouse with Circuit Judge Thomas G. Ross, the county administrative judge, and Clerk of the Circuit Court Scott MacGlashan.