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New museum celebrates nearly 200 years of federal court history

An interactive kiosk at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois' new museum and history center, which officially opened Tuesday, May 1st, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The proud eagle once had a perch inside the rotunda of Chicago’s old federal courthouse.

From there it looked down upon decades of history within the old Beaux Arts style building that loomed on South Dearborn. That’s where Al Capone and James Hoffa stood trial. And inside, a young mail carrier named Walt Disney dodged a bomb.

Today, that same eagle greets visitors across the street, on the 21st floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. It’s a gift from former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar. And it appears at the entrance to a new museum helping to celebrate the upcoming 200th birthday of the federal court system in Illinois.

“The history of our court is one that we really should be proud of,” U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen said at a ribbon cutting for the museum Tuesday. “Our court has been the leader in so many things through the years. And there are so many stories that have to be told. And so many stories that we’ve missed.”

Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer and former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar with an emblem that once hung in the rotunda of the Cobb Federal Building at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of a new museum and history center. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The museum is free and open to the public. U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo told a crowd at Tuesday’s ceremony it is dedicated to public education — and aimed at students from grade school to law school.

Gretchen E. Van Dam, circuit librarian and vice president of the Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Association, oversaw its creation. When students visit, she said she hopes it will “inspire more than a couple to become lawyers.”

The federal court system in Illinois was established with a March 3, 1819, statute that gave the state one judge, a clerk, one marshal and “a person learned in the law to act as attorney for the United States.” It would be another 30 years before Congress authorized Illinois’ federal judge, Nathaniel Pope, to venture up to Chicago.

Today, the federal court district based in Chicago is the country’s third largest. It stretches across 18 counties and includes a population of 9.3 million people.

In the new museum, Chicago’s old federal courthouse can be seen in post cards, playing cards and even fine china. Designed by Henry Ives Cobb, the old building was completed in 1905 and demolished in 1965 to make way for today’s federal plaza, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The plaza includes the Dirksen courthouse, which was finished in 1964 and sits across the street from the old courthouse site.

Visitors can also get a glimpse of the two buildings’ older predecessors in rare photographs.

In addition to viewing old artifacts, visitors may also interact with a series of videos in which sitting judges talk about the court. There are also plans for lectures.

The museum has been set up in an area that once served as the current courthouse’s pressroom, and courtroom sketches from some of Chicago’s most famous trials are on display. Among them are drawings from the El Rukn and Operation Greylord cases, along with the Chicago Seven trial, now nearing its 50th anniversary.

“I cannot say that was the best event ever at the courthouse,” Castillo said of the Chicago Seven trial. “But there’s a lot to be learned about that case.”

A new federal courts museum features porcelain with images of the Cobb Federal Building that was created to be memorabilia for the 1893 World’s Fair. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Mention is given to the September 1918 bombing of the old courthouse, blamed at the time on the Industrial Workers of the World. The bombing killed four people, but no one was ever convicted. Disney, who worked in the building as a substitute mail carrier, once said in an interview that he barely missed the explosion.

“This thing went off and here comes dust shooting out and everything, and that was the way I went out every night,” Disney said in the 1956 interview. “I missed that, missed that darn thing by about three minutes.”

A cabinet near the front of the museum also celebrates the career of U.S. District Judge James Parsons, who in 1961 was chosen to serve by President John F. Kennedy and became the first African-American to receive a lifetime appointment as a district court judge.

Now, more than a half-century later, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras said the court remains “vital to the future of the country.” During Tuesday’s ceremony, he described it as a place where disputes can be settled on their merits — not on misinformation.

“Where else in the world is such a system in place permitting that sort of resolution?” Kocoras asked. “Any place else you go, there’s a rifle around or boxing gloves.”