Story behind the Stearns County Courthouse clock and dome

The historic terra cotta dome sits atop the Stearns County Courthouse building, which was completed in 1922 in downtown St. Cloud at a cost of $850,000. The dome features four clock dials at its base that are visible from the north, east, west and south.

The historic terra cotta dome sits atop the Stearns County Courthouse building, which was completed in 1922 in downtown St. Cloud at a cost of $850,000. The dome features four clock dials at its base that are visible from the north, east, west and south.

It was an idea whose time had come, and those who made it a reality had the future in mind when they made the effort to build what would become a landmark in downtown St. Cloud.

The Stearns County Courthouse’s terra cotta dome and clock dials may be taken for granted by some today, but that hadn’t always been the case when the building was completed in 1922.

“When they built this thing, they had a vision in mind that this was going to be THE place to be for a long time,” said Steven Penick, archival director at the Stearns History Museum in St. Cloud.

The courthouse in downtown St. Cloud was built almost a century ago at a cost of about $850,000 and features six granite columns from Cold Spring at the building’s main entrance.

“You have to remember that in 1922 that World War I is phasing out, but certainly by that time, the economy is kind of in the tank for farmers … and yet they build this building for $850,000, which – at that time – was a chunk of change,” Penick said.

One of the more striking features of the courthouse that is immediately noticeable from the outside is its yellow terra cotta dome, with its floral patterns, swags and garlands in the detailing and inscriptions, a dome that is illuminated at night.

“I’ve been downtown a thousand times, and I’ve looked at this building, and you just look at it, and to me it’s just solid – that this is going to be here for a long time,” Penick said.

What appears to be a single dome from the outside is, in reality, two domes – an interior one about 26 feet in diameter and an exterior one coming in at 46 feet in diameter and more than a hundred feet tall; four clock dials can be seen at the base of the outside dome.

“The dome is terra cotta, so this is a pretty fancy building. The materials are not like metal or chintzy,” Penick said of the courthouse building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“I think the vision was – there are clocks on all four sides, so no matter which direction you’re coming from, north, south, east or west, you’re going to see this — this is the center of the town of St. Cloud.”

The courthouse sits on the site of Stearns County’s very first courthouse, which was a brick red building erected in 1864, almost a decade after the county was organized.

“The building that was there before for the courthouse was in shambles, so I think they were ready for something new because they outgrew the other building that was there,” Penick said.

“And you have this yellow dome which, even if you look at downtown, there’s not another building like that, which has this terra cotta, so it’s pretty unique.”

According to a 1929 article in the local newspaper, the old courthouse clock, regulated four clock dials at the base of the dome; the master clock made of steel, weighed 2,000 pounds and measured 8 feet high, 4 feet wide and was 2 feet thick, with a 200-pound pendulum.

Stearns History Museum Archivist Jessie Storlien, referring to in the article, a comment by Bert Stafford, a St. Cloud jeweler who was once in charge of maintaining the courthouse clock, who said it would “outlast any clock of the day, including the venerable Big Ben in London.”

“So I think they were trying to go for something that would last forever,” Storlien said based on Stafford’s comment.

The regulating clock, however, was recently worked on about a month ago, according to Stearns County Building Facilities Director Pete Reuter.

“Basically, the old mechanism in the pilot clock was outdated,” Reuter said. “We actually lost a gear up in the control board or up in the control box, and we put in a brand-new mechanism in there, so now they are all automatic, running off a motherboard.”

According to a 1938 article, members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce managed to park a Model T Ford automobile atop the dome ahead of an annual Model T Derby slated for Memorial Day with the help of three blocks and tackles, a steam wench and a pair of derricks.

Stearns History Museum Archival Director Steven Penick talks with Stearns History Museum Archivist Jessie Storlien about the Stearns County Courthouse’s terra cotta dome and clock dials featured on the building, which was completed in 1922. Photo by Frank Lee

Stearns History Museum Archival Director Steven Penick talks with Stearns History Museum Archivist Jessie Storlien about the Stearns County Courthouse’s terra cotta dome and clock dials featured on the building, which was completed in 1922. Photo by Frank Lee

Reuter said about the possibility of public tours of the dome: “There are handrails up there, but they don’t meet the current OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards, so basically it’s just maintenance personnel to service monthly the exhaust fan that’s up there.”

The dome’s clock dials were down for almost three months, starting in July. One of the gears broke in the central gear box that had arms that connected to the four clock dials on the exterior.

“There was a couple who came down to our department and said, ‘Hey! I want that clock working again. We need it working again,’” Reuter said.