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The Third Branch

Long missing from courthouse, iconic painting is returned to public display

By Judge Gerald P. Ptacek, Racine County Circuit Court

The lost-and-recovered “Spirit of the Law” mural now hangs in a place of honor in the Kenosha County Board Chambers.  (Photo credit:  Andrew Graubard)

The lost-and-recovered "Spirit of the Law" mural now hangs in a place of honor in the Kenosha County Board Chambers. (Photo credit: Andrew Graubard)

An original oil painting from the Kenosha County Courthouse has returned home after a long and somewhat mysterious absence. I play a role in this story, and that role began in the late 1970s – but I'll get back to that in a moment.

The painting, "Spirit of the Law," was displayed in the courthouse when the building was dedicated on August 25, 1925. It was originally mounted over the judge's bench in the Kenosha Municipal Court.

Removed from its place of prominence during a subsequent remodeling project, it was lost, then recovered at a local antiques shop and ultimately returned to Kenosha County. The piece is now on prominent display in a whole new spot.

The painting depicts a life-sized female figure who is robed and holds a book in one hand and has her other hand raised above her head. Male and female figures kneel on either side. The kneeling female is holding a child. A souvenir book commemorating the 1925 dedication describes the painting as follows: "The figure at the left is the mother appealing to the law for protection, while the one at the right is the man guilty of the wrong."

Charles Holloway created this mural and three others for the courthouse: "Spirit of Mercy" over the doorway, "Spirit of Justice" over the judge's bench in the Circuit Court, and "Truth" over the main doorway. The souvenir book explains that Holloway designed a number of murals for courthouses, theaters and churches in several states, and also made a name for himself at the St. Louis Exposition, where his work won a first prize.

Holloway's work did not come cheap. The total cost of the courthouse and jail was estimated to be $1,169,000 and the cost for art, including the murals, was $45,000 – or about $600,000 in today's dollars.

As I said, my part in this story began in the late 1970s. A friend, Lorna Zeroz, was an antiques dealer in downtown Racine where I lived and had my law office. One day she gave me this large, rolled-up canvas she had received from an antiques dealer in Kenosha. She said it had been removed from the Kenosha County Courthouse during a remodeling project. To preserve and protect the painting, we had it mounted on Masonite board. At approximately 6 by 8 feet, it remained an imposing presence propped against a conference room wall.

I left private practice for public service work as district attorney in 1980, and the painting remained with my partner in the office. When he left to become a judicial court commissioner, and another tenant took over the office, the question arose: "What do we do with the painting?"

The research I had done verified that it was original to the Kenosha County Courthouse. In another twist, I learned that the Municipal Courtroom where the painting had hung ultimately became the courtroom of Judge Burton A. Scott where I worked as a judicial intern through a Supreme Court program during my law school career in 1973-74. Today it is the courtroom of Judge David M. Bastianelli.

It seemed obvious that the painting belonged in Kenosha. I contacted the director of the Kenosha Historical Museum. He gladly accepted my donation and "Spirit of the Law" was returned to Kenosha.

I thought that was the end of the story. Then one day some years later I got a letter from County Executive John Collins. Kenosha County had purchased the former union hall directly west of the courthouse and was remodeling it to include county offices and County Board chambers. He informed me that the painting was to be restored and incorporated as the focal point of the Kenosha County Board Chambers.

I am delighted to say that "Spirit of the Law," an historical gem original to the Kenosha County Courthouse, has now been returned to a place of prominent, public display.

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