"There was no town until there was a courthouse," William Faulkner wrote in one of his novels, and there was no courthouse until the old jail was "transmogrified into a by-neo-Greek-out-of-Georgian-England edifice set in the center of what in time would be the town square.

It is also set in the center of American life.

The county courthouse often came before the church. It is not just the place where we mete out justice, or what sometimes passes for it - where Lizzie Borden and Patty Hearst were tried, where Secco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death and the Scopes "Monkey Trial" was held. It is also the place where our birth and death, marriage, and divorce, and our deeds are recorded and where we buy the dog license.

It swas at the county courthouse that the men were mustered for the War of Independence and the Civil War. The news of their victories and reverses was posted on the courhtouse doors. Abe Lincoln made his mark in a county courthouse, as did many other small-town lawyers who became famous or infamous in the country's history. The old courthouse gang is still around. And the county courthouses are sometimes still the place where the vote is counted on election evening, where prisoners are kept, and where ceremonies are held.

County courthouses are the evidence of America.

This evidence has been produced in a photographic documentary as sweeping and perceptive as any since the Farm Security Administration, under the New Deal, recorded America's parched rural life in the 1930s.

Under an ambitious program, conceived and directed by Phyllis Lambert, 24, outstanding photographers were commissioned to take 8,000 photographs of more than a third of the country's 3,043 courthouses. Some of the best of these are on display through June 4, under the auspices of the National Association of Counties, at the AIA headquarters building, 1735 New York Ave. NW.

There is also a book, "Court House," with 300 photographs and texts by retired Massachusetts Justice Paul C. Reardon, architecture historians Henry Russell Hitchcock and William Seale, and essayist Calvin Trillin, with photographer Richard Pare, general editor of the project as well as of the book (Horizon Press, $35).

The project was sponsored by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, the whiskey people, most likely because Lambert, an architect, is the daughter of the former president of the firm.

Two decades or so ago, Lambert persuaded her father to hire Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram Building on New York's Park Avenue. That was a historic event in American architecture.

The courthouse project is equally as important, I believe. Perhaps more so. The Seagram Building acquainted the American public with the best the so called International Style of architecture could offer. The courthouse project acquaints us with the richness and ingenuity of our own indigenous architecture, Even those of us who have long taken an interest in historic building will be astounded just how rich and indigenous it is.

Faulkner was right, of course. What they built in the small towns was "by-neo-Greek-out-of-Georgian-England," or Carpenter Gothic out of Ruskin's England, or H.H. Richardson Romanesque out of Lombardy and Boston, or the haughtly Empire Style out of Baron Haussmann's Paris. But in most cases those styles were subtly Americanized.

You see this more clearly in county courthouses than in state capitols or the important commercial buildings in the big cities. The county courthouses were truly community buildings. They represented local concerns, local values, local tastes. Some were designed by well-known, accomplished architects who knew full what was right and proper and what they had been taught in architecture school.

But you can just hear the local folks telling that city slicker architect how they didn't care about these niceties. They wanted their tower a little higher than the one in the next county, and who cares if it is properly proportioned or in keeping with a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] porch and pediment?

As Hitchcock and Seale put it, "there is a quality of directness in courthouse architecture that has remained rather consistent since colonial times.

"Their openness and, often, the free spirit of their design contribute to what is seen as 'distinctly American' about them. Their provinciality derives from innocence, not from hostility toward established modes; ambition manifests itself more in scale and ornamentation than in copying what had been built in grander places," the historians add.

These qualities are beautifully brought out by the superb quality of the photographs, which often show the spirit of the building rather than its structural aspects.

You are not likely to forget the impression photographer William Clift makes with his photographer of empty jury seats, a crack in the wall and a clock in the Warren County (Miss.) Court House.In its own way, this picture of America is as impressive as Mount Rushmore.