Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

The Legacy of Architect Albert A. Bennett

Merced County Courthouse was designed by Albert Austin Bennett. (Grey Roberts Collection)
Merced County Courthouse was designed by Albert Austin Bennett. (Grey Roberts Collection)

Albert Austin Bennett’s son once said his father “wanted to be buried so the shadow of the capitol would fall across his grave.”

Bennett served as California State Architect under Governors Henry Haight (1867-1871) and William Irwin (1875-1880). It was during Haight’s Administration that Bennett oversaw the construction of the State Capitol. Although Sacramento was no longer his home at the time of his death, Bennett chose to be buried in Sacramento so he would be near the State Capitol.

This famous architect had a Merced connection and many of you may have already guessed it.

Born and raised in New York state, Bennett’s parents were Quakers who were among the earliest settlers of the area. Young Bennett did not follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine. Instead, he found his passion in the study of architecture and carpentry and engaged in the building of the Alabama State Capitol when he was barely 20 years old in 1846.

During the California Gold Rush, Bennett joined the 49ers and journeyed west through Panama. Arriving in San Francisco on Aug. 30, 1849, Bennett briefly tried his luck in the gold fields before heading for Sacramento to pursue a career in architecture and construction. From 1850 to his death in 1890, in addition to the State Capitol Building, he constructed some of the finest buildings including the Odd Fellows Hall in Sacramento, Sacramento County Hospital, and Folsom Prison, and supervised improvements on the Governor’s Mansion and San Quentin Prison.

As an architect, he was best known for his design of courthouses. From 1863 to 1898, alone or in partnership with J. M. Curtis, Bennett was responsible for eight courthouses in Yolo, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Sonoma, and Humboldt counties. The five courthouses in the San Joaquin Valley were all very similar in appearance and all had three stories. The style is called Italianate that features columns, balconies, overhangs, decorative brackets, tall arched windows, and a cupola (or tower). Except for the Stanislaus County Courthouse in Modesto, all of the other four had a cupola in the center of the roof. It is a vista point that adds to the grandeur of the structure and serves no real function.

The Merced County courthouse was completed in 1875 at a cost of $55,970 by A. W. Burrell and Company of Oakland. There are several interesting elements about the building that express Architect Bennett’s beliefs. The statue that tops the cupola is called Minerva (Goddess of Wisdom) who carries a shield and a spear. The shield is for defense and the spear is to attack evil-doers. Minerva is surrounded by three statues of Justitia (Goddess of Justice) facing east, south, and west and wearing no blindfolds. It was because Bennett believed that justice was not blind. By placing Minerva above Justitia, he believed that wisdom prevails over justice — without wisdom, there is no justice. According to the late Bill Bedesen, legend has it that Justitia was absent from north because the people who lived in Snelling, which situated north, did not need to be watched due to their honesty.

In addition to its use as a courthouse, the building was also home to county offices from 1875 to 1975. Before the County Jail was built in 1904, the ground floor housed the Sheriff’s office and jail. Other county offices from Tax Collector to County Superintendent of Schools took up the main floor while the highest floor, where the courtrooms and Board of Supervisors’ chamber were, was reserved for the judges and lawmakers.

The magnificent courtroom was a crown jewel of Bennett’s design and many important cases were tried there. Several cases that I wrote about in this column include the murder of a well-known Merced Falls rancher John Ivett and the conviction of a black man named Willie Fisher by an all-black jury. By 1950, the courts had moved to new quarters in Courthouse Park while the county offices remained in this building until 1975.

Of Bennett’s courthouses, all but one has met the fate of destruction. Only our Merced Courthouse has survived! Its survival was the result of community effort. During the 1960s when the County Supervisors were looking for sites for a new administration building, one of the options was to explore a city and county joint use of a civic center in Courthouse Park. This sparked outrage and opposition from community members who wanted to preserve the historic park, building, and trees. The Save-Courthouse-Park Committee was organized and it successfully defeated the Board’s plan to build in Courthouse Park.

With that, the vacant courthouse went through an extensive interior and exterior renovation in the late 1970s and early 1980s and became the home of the Courthouse Museum in 1983. Albert Bennett’s work is being maintained in the form of a building that preserves and presents the history of our county. As we continue to celebrate our history and Bennett’s legacy, we need to make sure that our courthouse will last another 143 years. Our historic courthouse is long overdue for another major renovation to prevent any further deterioration.

To see how you can help, please join us for Merced County Historical Society annual membership meeting on Sunday, Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. at the Merced County Board of Supervisors’ Chamber. Also at the meeting, a slate of historical society officers and board members will be installed and several awards and grants will be presented. This year’s keynote speaker is Ron Genini of Fresno, author of California: On the Edge of American History.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at