COLUSA 150: Mystery of Colusa’s most impressive building

Without looking at the photo, would you know which direction the golden bear mounted in the pediment of the Colusa County Courthouse faces?

What would you say if you saw photos taken of Colusa’s most impressive structure over the years and saw the bear facing west, then east, and then west again?

The Colusa County Courthouse was built in 1861 at a cost of $21,000, and is considered the first Classical Revival courthouse constructed in the Sacramento Valley. It is the second oldest existing courthouse still in use in California.

The massive building has served continuously as the seat of justice and government for Colusa County since March of 1861, and served as a meeting place for several years for the City of Colusa’s first Board of Trustees, when the city was incorporated in 1868. It was also the center of cultural, social, and religious activities, where club meetings, dances, church services, and funerals were held.

The two story brick building, later covered over with plaster, was designed with motifs derived from Roman and Greek classical orders. Its four massive 30 feet high columns at its entrance support the projecting pediment with the sculptured golden bear, the symbol of the state of California.

The bear currently faces west, but as historical photographs would indicate, the sculpture was likely removed for gilding and then returned to various positions, sometimes facing west, sometimes east.

Which way the bear originally faced has been a subject of debate, although many speculate that the bear would probably have been first placed facing west out of deference to manifest destiny, a 19th century belief that was widely held in the United States at the time of the courthouse’s construction that this country’s settlers were destined by God to expand westward across North America.

The Colusa County Courthouse was designated California Historic Landmark No. 890 during the nation’s bicentennial celebration that was held in Colusa on July 4, 1976.

The City of Colusa will celebrate its sesquicentennial on June 16, 2018.