Courthouse Square Location from “Back to the Future”
Located in Universal City, California
Editor’s Note: this text is from the old version of BTTF tour – we’re going to be revising these articles in the coming days. The photos and screenshots from these articles will all be down below for the time being, instead of thumbnails within the text. Thanks for your patience, and visit us again when everything’s tidied up!
Let me tell you folks, I’ve walked the back lot and Warner Brothers, and I’ve been to a lot of filming locations, but as a Back to the Future fan, nothing raised the hair on the back of my neck like the awe-inspiring site of the courthouse square. The sheer size (bolstered by the forced-perspective-enhaced buildings) of the square, with that majestic, untouched, clocktower, conjured up images of doc brown ziplining down to send Marty back to the future! I wanted to start running around and re-enacting the hoverboard scenes and everything. Well, those days are changed forever. In June of 2009 Universal Studios re-opened courthouse square after a massive fire destroyed 3/4 of the facades and severely damaged the building behind the courthouse facade. The Courthouse had long been dressed for Ghost Whisperer before the fire, and it now appears that they’ve redesigned the entire square with more modern productions in mind. And while the new courthouse looks strikingly remeniscant of the BTTF courthouse we know and love, it is just not the same.
The Optimist in us could say that it’s possible for them to redress the set in a BTTF way but why would they do it now? The whole structure of the facade seems to have been completely reengineered, and the buildings in the square are nothing like their previous structures. Let’s face it, Back to the Future Part IV is never going to happen, but our little piece of Hill Valley was the jewel in the crown for BTTF fans. Now Universal has also removed the Back to the Future ride in the adjacent theme park as well. It’s still 100% worth the trip here, and unfortunately, we have no pictures of the new square at the moment, but you must be forewarned that what’s in our article below remains, sadly, in the past…
Like the twin pines ranch location, this is technically not a “location shoot” site like most of what you see on BTTFtour.com, but since it wasn’t a soundstage and for the most part the general public can see it for themselves, we decided to keep it. Well, that and it’s possibly the most important place in BTTF history!
Of course we must be talking about the Courthouse square, the site of the Hill Valley Clocktower as seen on screen in 1955, 1985, and 2015! Located on the Backlot of Universal Studios, Hollywood, the courthouse sits much as it has since it was erected — sort of.
Actually, the history of the backlot itself is pretty long, but we’ll spare you for the moment and just tell you about the clocktower. Originally this facade (and yes, sorry folks, it’s just a three-sided facade) was used for the TV series Leave it to Beaver, as the location of his school. In fact, the familiar clocktower portion was added specifically for Back to the Future. While filming the original movie, they actually had to trade off days with the Leave it to Beaver movie using the same building, adding and removing the clocktower as needed!
Part of Universal Studios is a theme park, but the theme park offers tram tours that actually roam through the working backlot every day. If you’re lucky enough to be there on a day when there is no filming in this particular portion, your tram will roll right down into Hill Valley… The odd thing is, though you are on the right spot, and looking at the right building, it’s technically not the same thing at all, as the clocktower burned to the ground in a backlot fire after the original film wrapped in the mid 80s.
And it gets even weirder. In an odd twist of fate, just after the original movie was finished, in 1987 a backlot fire threatened to consume most of the square, and the entire rebuilt Courthouse set itself. Fortunately it only managed to burn some of the buildings on the south side of the square, including the building used as “Lou’s Diner.” Luckily, the architectural plans for all fo the buildings were used to quickly rebuild what was necessery for the sequels, even improving them to alow for the special effects used in the 2015 scenes.
And then, just after the sequels wrapped, in 1990, almost the entirety of the square burned down again. Obviously it was rebuilt from the original blueprints, but many other buildings in the square, particularly on the north side, where it appears truly obvious that although very close, these new facades have markedly different proportions. So while it isn’t exactly the same, it’s still where it happened – and I’m inclined to ignore that fact and just enjoy it as if nothing had happened. Hey, ignorance is bliss…
But for those of you crying out “Oh no!” Click Here and here and you will see – the one thing that escaped devestation in the 1990 fire was the courthouse itself, with it’s mighty BTTF clocktower still occasionally sitting proudly atop the building. If you’re interested in the history of the Backlot, definately check out The Studio Tour website, the best unofficial site dedicated to the history of Universal’s backlot!
Thankfully, all was rebuilt for the sequels, and the clocktower/courthouse was saved from total destruction from the 1990s backlot fire, and we can still see the courthouse today. Of course, I once held an annual pass to the theme park for an entire year and did not see this location once, though that was the entire reason for my being there! It truly does vary what you’re able to see on the lot. Still, if you do decide to visit, you will be able to see it from various vantage points in the theme park proper, which is on the hill above the backlot. And of course, there’s always Back to the Future, the ride, and perhaps the largest collection of BTTF merchandise you’ll find in all of southern California.Better hurry though, the Orlando version of the BTTF ride is closing. And it’s rumored So Cal will be next, and that it’s demise will be short and swift after the official announcement comes.
I have included some shots below taken in January of 2005. You will notice that the facade has changed from red brick to a grey stone. Apperantly the courthouse’s “texture” was changed sometime around the filming of bruce almighty (featured in the mob/riot scenes), and the famous clock-hole has been covered right up! Matter of fact, on several occasions when I’ve been in the backlot, I’ve seen it completely changed, usually with the entire clock tower portion removed!
Of course, as I mentioned – Universal is, at any given time, filming several motion pictures, TV commercials, and TV shows, most of which make at least some use of the backlot, so naturally our courthouse cannot be preserved in “pristine condition,” and must be disguised to fit it’s new roles in new generations of films. No matter how much it bums out tram-riding back to the future fans!!
Believe me, I too, if I had the money, would “Save the Clocktower” and rebuild this entire square, as seen in the films, somewhere even more public, for all BTTF fans to see. Unfortunately, as I am a starving artist, that is not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever. err.. yeah.
ADDRESS: 1000 UNIVERSAL CENTER DRIVE, UNIVERSAL CITY, CA
COORDINATES: 34.141393, -118.349914