Courthouses: Clay County
Department of Community Development, University of
Organized: January 2, 1822
Named after: Henry Clay, Kentucky
County seat: Liberty
"This court having viewed with regret the
inconvenience the citizens of the county labor under,
as well as the great inconvenience the courts
encountered for want of suitable buildings for the
accommodations of the different courts, deem it
necessary to make an effort to construct a courthouse
upon the public square in the town of Liberty."
Although Clay County organized in 1822 and Liberty
was chosen as the county seat, it was not until the
May term of court in 1828 that this proclamation gave
authority for building the first courthouse. Several
plans or drafts were submitted for the court's
consideration, but commissioners accepted the one
Judge George Burnett submitted.
No known illustrations exist, but there is a complete
description in the County Court Record for June 1829
which indicates a 44-foot-4-inch, square, brick
courthouse, five bays wide with doors on the south,
east and west, featuring decorative semicircular
fanlights. The courtroom occupied the north part of
the building, apparently on the first floor. A hip
roof was first planned, but in 1829 changed to a
Joseph Bright was contractor for the building, but
progress was slow. The brick floor on the first story
was laid in 1831, so some of the rooms could be
occupied; final work was not completed until 1833.
Costs of approximately $1,770 came from the sale of
county lots and public subscription. Subsequently
enlarged by additions on the east and west, it was
described as being in poor condition by 1847-48. Fire
destroyed this courthouse March 27, 1857.
A Liberty Weekly Tribune
editorial reported the advantages of relocating the
courthouse off the square, but tradition prevailed,
and in May 1857 the court authorized construction of
the second courthouse on the site of the first. The
court appropriated $35,000 for the new building and
paid Peter McDuff $100 for one of two plans he
McDuff resided at Weston, Missouri, but was born in
Scotland in 1813. Little is known of his background,
training or interest that might have inspired either
this unique design or the one for Clinton County in
1859. In 1866 McDuff designed the Platt County
courthouse, which is the only surviving example of
his courthouse work.
The court also appointed McDuff superintendent. Crump
and Thompson were the contractors. The building was
received by the court November 9, 1859, and the Tribune
boasted, "Clay County now has the best
courthouse in the state." This courthouse was
sold to a St. Joseph wrecking firm for $330 and razed
in 1934, as the square was prepared for the next and
By 1934 Clay County considered its courthouse 75
years behind the time. During the 1930s Public Works
Administration projects encouraged public building
applications, and after Clay County approved bonds in
the amount of $200,000, P.W.A. approved a $75,500
Thomas and Edward Drewin Wight, of the Kansas City
firm, served as architects. When a sketch of their
proposed modern design appeared, an uproar ensued by
those who favored a traditional design, which they
had thought the court intended to build. However, the
traditional design which had accompanied the grant
application (see Figure 2) was the action of a
courthouse committee, rather than the County Court.
The court retained Wight and Wight, who designed a
white limestone building 117 by 87 feet and 60 feet
high (see Figure 3). The architects needed to rework
their original plans to bring costs within the
acceptable range. Bliss and Duncan, Kansas City,
received the contract for $192,330; construction
began March 27, 1935. The cornerstone ceremony was
conducted September 19, 1935, and, in spite of labor
problems, the building was completed in June 1936.
Construction costs ultimately reached $263,410.
Acute space problems developed in the 1970s. An annex
was built and several ideas for additions and
enlargements have been considered since. This is an
outstanding example of a government project of this
Bryan, John. Missouri's
Contribution to American Architecture.
1922.Dedication of the Clay
County Courthouse, Liberty, June
6, 1936.History of Clay and
Platte Counties. St. Louis:
National Historical Company, 1885.Jackson, Don M. The
Heritage of Liberty. Liberty:
R.C. Printing Service, 1976.Short C. W. and
Stanley-Brown, R. Public
Buildings. Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Printing Office, 1939.Woodson, W.H. History
of Clay County, Missouri.
Indianapolis: Historical Publishing Company, 1920.
Kansas City Times,
Sept. 29, 1976.Liberty Advance,
March 26, 1934.Liberty Chronicle,
Feb. 8, 15, 22, March 22, 29, June 28, July 5, Aug.
23, 30, Sept. 6, 13, 20, 27, 1934; Jan. 3, 10, Feb.
21, March 28, July 4, Aug. 8, Sept. 19, 1935; June 4,
Sept. 22, Nov. 24, 1976.Liberty
Weekly Tribune, March 30, 1847;
April 21, 28, 1848; June 6, 1851; March 27, April 17,
May 22, June 10, July 10, 1857; May 28, 1858; Nov.
11, 1859; April 10, 1863; May 25, 1866.
Illustrated Atlas of Clay County,
Missouri. Philadelphia; Edwards
Brothers of Missouri, 1877.