A Tribute To San Diego County Courts Of The Past

Presented by: San Diego County Superior Court

When you step into San Diego's Hall of Justice, you will notice stained glass windows overlooking the central atrium. The County of San Diego Superior Court is pleased to share the history of these windows, in words and pictures, with our World Wide Web visitors.

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The stained glass windows overlooking the central atrium in the Hall of Justice carry a history that curves back upon itself, much like the stylized foliage that graces so much Victorian art.

The windows hark back to the late 19th century, when the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to order $2,000 worth of art glass from John Mallon of San Francisco to decorate the 1889 courthouse. That sum purchased 42 stained glass windows depicting the artist's version of the Great Seals of the 42 states then in the Union. It is believed Mallon used a process he is said to have invented where the images were photographed on glass and the designs "burned in" before they were painted in oils. The seal medallions were then surrounded by stained glass designs, with faceted jewels sometimes accenting the floral, ribbon foliate, or geometric and fishscale patterns.

The choice of Mallon appears to be a conscious expression of civic pride going first class. As noted in the California Architecture and Building News of the time, art glass had "become one of the necessities of the present day" and Mallon had "almost a monopoly of the home market in its line." He designed windows for the Crocker family and Senator Leland Stanford in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as for San Diego's Villa Montezuma and area churches.

Despite the brilliance of the glass, artistically detailed designs, and deep luster of the painted images, the tide of fashion was not kind to the graceful artworks. By the time the 1889 courthouse was razed in 1959 to make way for the current building, Victorian embellishments and extravagances were often seen as ungainly or old-fashioned when compared with the stripped down sleekness of 1960s modern. Some public sentiment urged that the antique windows be preserved and incorporated into the new structure as a vital link with history, but a preference for the new and different prevailed. The warped and sometimes damaged windows speckled with dirt and soot were packed up and consigned to the oblivion of storage.

The windows came to public attention again in 1978 after an arsonist destroyed the Electric Building and the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. The tragedy prompted two judges who remembered the treasures to ask the Board of Supervisors where the court windows were housed. County officials then removed the artworks from a rented storage area to a more secure county facility, where an examination revealed the Massachusetts window was missing. Intense media coverage jogged the memory of a former manager at U.S. National Bank, who recognized the window as the very one that had languished in his garage for 19 years, bound for the scrap heap.

County photographer Hans Wendt subsequently took slides of each artwork, and Mary Ward, county historian in the Department of Parks and Recreation, meticulously documented and catalogued the collection. The Board of Supervisors eventually decided to display the stained glass in county courthouses, and the Public Arts Advisory Council launched a campaign to finance the restoration and permanent installation. The legal community and other civic-minded donors responded generously to the appeal, with the California window the first one to be installed.

But 12 windows never found a home. Perhaps not enough appropriate spaces were available, or maybe the money ran out. In any case, they remained in county warehouses and eventually came into the custody of Chuck Freeman, supervisor of Superior Court property and supplies.

An art history buff since college, Freeman saw construction of the Hall of Justice as an opportunity to return the stored windows to court service. Superior Court Presiding Judge James R. Milliken agreed and broached the idea of private sponsorship to the development team of Lankford & Associates, Inc., Hensel Phelps Construction Co., and architects Carrier Johnson Wu. They promptly offered to refurbish three windows themselves. Their enthusiasm brought in the San Diego County Bar Foundation, which offered local law firms a chance to restore a glittering memento from San Diego's legal history.

Twenty-eight firms and individuals pledged more than $100,000 to refurbish and install the artworks on the first four floors of the Hall of Justice. Their generous gifts have preserved for the public a glowing link with our historic past.

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