OCEAN COUNTY COURTS The Early Years:
A Legislative Act signed on February 15, 1850, set off Ocean County from Monmouth County to address the needs of citizens south of the Manasquan River . Toms River was selected as the new county seat. The first organizational meeting of the Ocean County governing body was held on May 8, 1850 in a local tavern. Early in the formation of the county, the board of freeholders began searching for an appropriate location for its first governmental building.
Several lots in the Village of Toms River were offered by interested citizens for the county's first building, but the one chosen was "a lot on the center of my lands on the north side of the road from the meeting house to the Schenck's Mill Road ", a cornfield on what is now Washington Street . The lot was offered by Joseph Coward who was so pleased when his site was selected that he presented the Board with 6,000 bricks to start the construction. The building was finished in September 1851. With the new courthouse, all the official business of the County could be conducted in one building.
The courthouse was built from the architectural plans borrowed from Hudson County. With its tall Doric columns supporting a massive pedimented portico, the Courthouse is an excellent example of the temple form that was the most distinguishing feature of the Greek Revival style.
In 1851 the county began using the new building that is now known as Courtroom 1. The inside of the courthouse reflected the plain and simple character of the village. The first floor housed all the county officers - clerk, surrogate and such and the second floor was simply a 40 by 46 multipurpose room with a 20 foot ceiling. The Courtroom seated 250 persons on plain straight-backed benches. The judge's bench of carved black walnut was on a raised dais behind the walnut rail which separated the bench from the spectators.
This Court Room was used for many community, civic and religious functions other than court events. During the Civil War, this room was the scene of Union recruiting rallies and military drills were conducted on the lawn in front of the Courthouse steps. In addition to civic functions it accommodated meetings of the Grange, Daughters of the American Revolution, square dancing and the like. Today, people using the courtroom are no doubt sitting in a place where in the 1860s young men of Ocean stood to receive their uniforms before being sent off to the Civil War battlefields, many never to return-as this room was a central mustering place for the war effort. In the 1800's it was rarely used as a court as the judges back then rode the circuit and the trips to Toms River were few and far between.
For reasons that are lost to history, the county was required to extensively renovate the courthouse in 1870. After much discussion amongst the freeholders, the appropriation of $10,000 was set for the reparations of the courthouse with the intentions of making it "worthy of the name of a court house."
Included in this renovation was an 1870 extension of the Courtroom in back of the judges bench, called a "Grecian bend", with an overhead domed skylight. This brought a more Victorian look to the Greek Revival style 1850 Courthouse. The March 29th issue of the New Jersey Courier notes that "Our Court House is now nearly completed. From one of the most unsightly buildings we had among us, it has become one of the handsomest edifices in our state."
Unfortunately, a costly fire in the Grecian bend on October 25, 1929, destroyed the judge's bench and furniture, charred the seats and woodwork and damaged the courtroom with smoke. At that time, the building was repaired but not restored to its former elegance.
From 1850 to today:
The population of Ocean County has grown substantially since the county was first established in 1850. Following World War II returning veterans sparked a population boon that has not abated to this day. The county has grown from 36,700 residents in 1940 to over 540,000 today. The increased population required the addition of many new court and county administration buildings. Initially, to facilitate the growth, additions were made to the 1850's courthouse. As the county continued to grow new buildings were added for county and court services. In 1850 there was one building housing both court and county administrative functions; at the present time, there are 24 courtrooms for the Superior Court of New Jersey in the county and numerous buildings housing court and county administrative functions.
In recognition of its place in Ocean County history, the freeholders decided to embark on an extensive renovation of the historic courthouse to restore it to the stateliness that had marked its construction in 1870. Reopened In December of 2004, the 1850 courthouse is enhanced with architectural and design details that were present in the building in the 1800's. Once again the courtroom will be used as not only a courtroom but as a meeting place for important county events. After 135 years of service, the courthouse continues to be the hub of Ocean County court matters and civic events and preserves the history of Ocean County .