Face of Golden Justice
At the warehouse facility of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the face of the Golden Justice shines, even in darkness. In her day, she embodied her namesake for citizens and visitors alike throughout Milwaukee County. Perched atop Milwaukee’s second courthouse from 1870 to 1877, she was forged from sheet zinc and gilded.
The justice served as a proper final touch for Milwaukee’s decorative, new courthouse. Designed by architect Leonard Schmidtner, the courthouse façade was composed of red sandstone from Lake Superior, cast iron columns and cupola, with ornately carved paneling in its interior. An imposing stone bust of Solomon Juneau was installed on the top floor of the courthouse, looking out onto Cathedral Square, passing judgment.
So striking was this statue that she inspired a popular fictional work, The Golden Justice by author William Henry Bishop. Although her exterior was awe inspiring, her interior was poorly constructed, being composed of wood. A savage wind storm in 1877 bent her nearly in half, causing irreparable damage, which forced her removal from the courthouse cupola.
Judging her to be scrap, workers were prepared to dispose of the figure, when Jacob Donges, a local businessman, salvaged her with the intent to erect her at his estate at Donges Lake. When his efforts failed, he saved the justice’s beautiful face and discarded her body. It was subsequently donated to Milwaukee’s Old Settler’s Club, an organization devoted to preserving Milwaukee’s early history. Donges recognized the significance of the justice and what it symbolized to Milwaukeeans, even if only for a short time. When the Old Settler’s Club entrusted its collection to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, she was among its treasures to become part of the permanent collection.
Even though this symbol of honesty and integrity no longer sits atop the courthouse, her shining face serves as a constant reminder not only of Milwaukee’s effort to exert fair justice on its citizens, but also of a by-gone era of architecture throughout the city that perhaps will never be matched.