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Courthouses I have known

2005.10.23 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | by Derek Jensen


Kosciusko County courthouse in Warsaw, Indiana is one of my favorites. (hi res)

For the last few months, I've had an ongoing project to photograph interesting places and add them to Wikipedia. For the last few weeks, since I no longer visit New York or Cincinnati, I've taken up photographing local towns and cities.


But in small towns, I often find that the only thing of interest is the county courthouse, assuming it's even a county seat. I'm pleasantly surprised when it is, and often say aloud to myself, "Hey, there's a building!"



Steuben County courthouse circle, Angola, Indiana (the modest little courthouse is on the right). (hi res)

Eastern Indiana and western Ohio were settled at about the same time in the mid- to late-1800s, so most county courthouses date from this period, which is generally considered "Victorian," even tho Queen Victoria lived in a different part of the world.


They don't all share the same style, tho.



The Second Empire-style Logan County courthouse in Bellefontaine, Ohio. (hi res)

Some are neoclassical, meaning that they look like something the ancient Romans would have built if they understood democracy or justice.


Some are Second Empire, which is that style that looks like a creepy old mansion.


Some are Romanesque Revival (or Jacobethan), meaning they look like something Dracula would have built if he understood democracy or justice.


Some have a style that I can't quite identify, possibly a government version of Italianate. It's a particularly "municipal" style that says "I am a government building, but not a particularly important one, just the most important one in a twelve-mile radius."



New Kosciusko County courthouse in Warsaw, Indiana. Not one of my favorites. (hi res)

I've never seen a Queen Anne "painted lady" county courthouse, but I imagine some exist somewhere.


Saddest of all are county courthouses that are new and modern. These are generally found across the street from the old courthouse, which may have been turned into a museum or is still operating but just isn't big enough anymore for all the county "doin's."


Modern county buildings are usually called the "Hall of Justice" or something similar, apparently inspired by the Super Friends cartoon in the 1970s.



Hamilton County courts in Cincinnati, Ohio is an Art Deco skyscraper, but was not purpose-built for the county. (hi res)

They are low, sleek, glass-and-aluminum-facade buildings that say "I am a government building built by people who are no longer particularly proud of the concept of local government and who would rather have lower property taxes than a cathedral of democracy."


Modern county buildings are built right on the street instead of in the middle of a grassy town square with a fountain or a howitzer or a statue of generic Civil War soldiers.


Having been around for a century and a half, most county courthouses are a little overgrown with trees obscuring their facades. I wish these were cut back or removed from time to time to keep them from blocking the wonderful buildings from view. It's the only interesting building in town, after all.



Whitley County courthouse in Columbia City, Indiana, a nice "municipal" version of Italianate. (hi res)

I'm surprised that town squares aren't larger and incorporate more open space to be more like a park, or at least piazza. America could use a few good piazzas.


Of course, they're working buildings, for the most part, and need to be accessible to the lawyers and defendants and judges who use them, but they are such obvious centerpieces of the towns they are in that it seems like they would be made a little more universal.


Maybe when they were built, the space around them was usually open and has since been filled with the small-town dross of tanning salons and antique shops.



Lorain County courthouse in Elyria, Ohio, a lackluster neoclassical across from a nice park. (hi res)

Sometimes, the original architects are thwarted by later bureaucrats who dropped lamp posts, street signs, or other 20th-century baggage in front of their buildings without a thought for esthetics. There's nothing like a big "NO PARKING" sign and a concrete garbage can to much up the composition of a picture.


But architects can thwart themselves too. Most courthouses are essentially squarish, with four faces meant to be seen from any side, altho there is always a front. Putting that front on the north side in a northern clime means it will generally be in shadow, especially outside of summer.


For a house, you don't have much choice; the plot you buy determines the direction the house faces. But for a courthouse, which sits on its own block, you can choose any direction as the front. You site the building first and practically build the town around it. You ought to be able to do it right.



Elkhart County courthouse in Goshen, Indiana, a stately building with nods to Greek and Italianate styles. (hi res)

A lot of small town courthouses have historical plaques posted in front of them, telling tales about the town or the county or the guy who the county is named after or even just a vice-president who used to live in the county.


Again, since they were all founded around the same time, and since the name of a county is a pretty arbitrary thing, many counties are named after commanders in the Civil War or War of 1812, even if they had no connection to the county. It would be like naming something today after the top fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, even tho, you know, he was from some other state.



Marshall County courthouse in Plymouth, Indiana, a bit overgrown, with a more modern addition on the right. (hi res)

Early on in my project, I got fooled by one plaque in front of the Rochester, Indiana courthouse that told all about the old Rochester Normal College (a school for teachers). Not even realizing that Rochester was a county seat, I thought that the courthouse was the college, but a resident who is a Wikipedia contributor set the record straight.


I think it would be cool to buy a county courthouse and convert it to a private mansion. How much would a small town county building be worth? A million dollars? For another couple of million, you could buy the whole downtown.



Hamilton County courthouse, Noblesville, Indiana, a Second Empire masterpiece in the golden glow of twilight. (hi res)

That's assuming, of course, that the county is down on its luck from the local steel mill closing or something, and they have a newer "Hall of Justice" building to use instead.


The first thing I'd do is put up a low brick wall topped with a wrought iron fence to gate the mansion in. County courthouses I've are never fenced in or even have any visible security measures like concrete planters.


They have metal detector inside, of course, the few that I've ventured into, but on the outside they seem very open.



Fulton County courthouse in Rochester, Indiana, a rare Romanesque castle. (hi res)

I'd have to knock down some nearby buildings to make room for a pool and a garage. Having my own parking lot would be cool, but I've got to have a garage for the Ferrari. After all, if I can buy a small town, I'd already own a Ferrari.


I think I would choose a Second Empire style courthouse to buy, or maybe Italianate. I would especially enjoy the square tower of a Second Empire courthouse, altho a domed cupola would also be pretty cool.



Van Wert County courthouse, Van Wert, Ohio, a soggy Second Empire with no lawn. (hi res)

"Welcome to the party," I would say to guests. "We'll be having dinner in the rotunda. The football game is on in Courtroom 1, and in Courtroom 2, we're reenacting the OJ Simpson trial."


A lot of courthouses with towers include a clock. I would definitely want the tower to have a clock. I don't how really useful it is for people to be able to see a clock when they're downtown, but that would be my preference.




St. Joseph County courthouse in South Bend, an Renaissance Revival... I think. (hi res)

I suppose one of those digital clocks that also displays the temperature and sometimes even animations and notices—like you see on the corner bank—would probably be more useful. I'm a little surprised that I've never seen one with a scoreboard to show how the local football team is doing.


But I'd stick with the traditional analog clock. A lot of them don't seem to work. Maybe they were all hit by lightning while time traveling cars used them to generate the 1.21 gigawatts they need to power up their flux capacitors.


More courthouses I have known....


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