One indicator of just how much Bakersfield has grown and modernized is preserved in its buildings. Throughout downtown, remnants of Bakersfield’s past are intertwined with the present. Although some of Bakersfield's oldest buildings are no longer standing, pictures and stories of their origins and purpose give a window into the past. One such architectural time machine is found within the history of the first Kern County courthouse built in Bakersfield.
The first official courthouse was in Havilah, which served as Kern County’s seat from 1866 to 1874. Reflecting the architecture of the old west, the small wooden courthouse could not keep up with the growth of the county and with the official seat moving to Bakersfield, a new courthouse was needed.
In August 1874, the Board of Supervisors adopted a plan to build a new courthouse and jail in Bakersfield. The first order of business was to submit advertisements for bids in the Kern County Courier and the San Francisco Bulletin for 30 days. A.W. Burrell’s bid of $29,999 was accepted and construction began at present day Truxtun Avenue.
On Monday, Aug. 2, 1875, the ceremony of laying the courthouse’s cornerstone was led by the Master of the Bakersfield Lodge of Masons. Safely placed under the stone was a copy of the Bible, a history of the organization of Kern County, impressions of the court and county seals, organization of the town of Bakersfield as well as several local newspapers, lodge constitutions and miscellaneous coins.
Finally on Monday, April 3, 1876, the courthouse was completed. Described by the March 31, 1894 Daily Californian as “classic style, more or less of the Corinthian order,” the building measured 50 by 80 feet and was two stories high. On Monday, May 1, 1876, the court met for the first time in the new building. To mark the occasion, His Honor Judge Colby adjourned early and invited all to his chambers for champagne and cake “to which ample justice was done.”
Once again, as the county grew, so did the necessity to extend the courthouse. Under the direction of architect C.C. McDougall, the new extension was completed in 1896. Looking more like a castle for Lady Justice than a courthouse, the new size measured 140 by 100 feet. The March 31, 1894 Californian reported that “two half-round bays will be constructed, terminating in small dome-topped towers … the detail of ornamentation will be classic throughout, and the building will certainly be handsome and worthy of a growing interior city.” The aim was to incorporate beauty with utility.
In 1911 a new courthouse was constructed across the street and the now old courthouse was given a new responsibility as Bakersfield’s first City Hall.
Forty-two years later on July 21, 1952, the Kern County earthquake changed the fate of the old building. After serving the community for 76 years, the Sept. 3, 1952 Californian announced that “City Hall, former Courthouse, will soon be just a memory” as it was not able to withstand the earthquake’s jolts. Its successor suffered the same fate, eventually making way for the current Kern County Superior Court.