Courthouse Architecture: Greek vs. Roman

by Rachel Ehnert, Communications Specialist for Weld County

For even the most novice of architectural eyes, it’s easy to guess what architectural style the Weld County Courthouse falls under—Classical! From the tall marble pillars to the sharp, flat roofline, this is a style that nearly everyone can recognize as having old-world roots. In fact, this “Classical” style was invented by the ancient Greeks and is used in courthouses and governmental buildings across the globe. But why is it that this architectural style is so common among these types of buildings? Why is it that you can look at a courthouse and understand that it is a courthouse, simply by its design? The answer dates back to those ancient Greeks, who intended their architecture to communicate all you needed to know about what the structure housed.

The most recognizable features of Classical architecture are those massive pillars, which extend from the ground to the roof. These are meant to communicate the idea of individuals and how they must work together to carry the weight of the “structure” of government. However, this symbolism is far more complex than that—these pillars exists separately, and you can (in traditional Classical architecture) see behind them, through the structure, and out past the opposite side of pillars. This symbolizes the necessity of a transparent government, however, as many Classical structures exist outside of the temperate Mediterranean of the ancient Greeks, this architectural feature is often adapted to have one wall of pillars in front, with an enclosed building behind (as is the case with the Weld County courthouse.)

Further, a Classical structure always has a flat roof line, which represents stability and longevity. You won’t find a single arched doorway, roof, or window in true Classical architecture, as these were seen to communicate weakness and fancifulness. The ancient Greeks were interested only in pragmatic architecture, with connotations of the seriousness of government. They were not interested in any color, decorations, interior design, or anything else that would be deemed to connote extravagance.

Each of these Classical architectural features are present in our Weld County courthouse, however, if you are familiar with the building, you might notice that while it embodies many of these ancient Greek structural traditions, it also contradicts some. For example, while the Greeks disdained fanciful architecture, our courthouse boasts several arched doorways, colorfully painted plaster carvings, and vibrant walls of stained glass. For these extravagant features, we have the Romans to thank, as they adopted the ancient Greek Classical style and altered it to suit their aristocratic lifestyle.

Where the Greeks were concerned with pragmatism and the communication of a building, the Romans were concerned with aesthetics and the look of a building. To the Greek’s austere Classical style they added color, arches, domes, décor, and carvings. In fact, you can see several Roman symbols carved into the Weld County courthouse, such as the caduceus, which was used in Rome to symbolize the safe passage of someone on official Roman business. In our courthouse, it symbolizes the safe passage of the jury to the courtroom.

While Weld County is thousands of miles from Greece or Rome, our courthouse shares in their ancient tradition of pragmatic and communicative, and later, aesthetically pleasing, architecture.