“…Neither functional nor beautiful, but the object of much frustration, hopelessness, and public expense.”1
“…A disgrace to the community.”2
“The symbol of county government is lagging behind the times.”3
“The realization of the need for a new courthouse has been evident to most of our community for some time”4
It’s one of my favorites.
Call it hometown bias, call it a lack of architectural pedigree, call it downright stupid of me- call it whatever you want, but I like it.
Even so, the fourth Delaware County Courthouse, erected in 1969, remains a controversial building nearly fifty years after its construction. Looking at the stark, brutalist structure, it would be easy to assume that the quotations above refer to it, especially in an age when historic courthouses across the state are being restored. In reality though, the opinions at the beginning of this post described the courthouse’s aging and obsolete predecessor, an imposing Second Empire structure designed by Brentwood Tolan in 1887 and demolished to make way for the current building.
The 1887 courthouse can still more or less be appreciated in Warsaw, where the Kosciusko County courthouse is is a dead ringer for Muncie’s, or in Parke County, whose courthouse in Rockville would bring home the silver in a lookalike contest. That’s no accident, by the way- Brentwood’s father T.J. designed the courthouse in Warsaw, and both Tolans designed Rockville’s. After more than 130 years, the two old buildings seem to be holding up remarkably well.
Most people today can’t fathom the shortsightedness of the county’s decision to replace the old building, especially in exchange for what they consider a featureless concrete box. Looking at the buildings in Warsaw and Rockville, I can’t say that I totally blame them. There’s always more to the story than meets the eye, though. Let me explain.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, Muncie’s historic courthouse was not holding up well. Contemporary opinion attributes the sorry state of the old courthouse to governmental misfeasance or improper maintenance, but census figures paint a different story- the building was just overused. From 1890 to 1960, the population of Kosciusko County increased by net margin of 45.6% to 40,000 total residents, all served by its 1884 courthouse that cost a hair less than $200,000 when built. Parke County’s population decreased by a net margin of 23.6% in the same time period- just under 14,000 people lived there in 1960 and were served by its $110,000 courthouse built in 1882.
In contrast, the population of Delaware County in 1890 was 30,131. By 1960, the population had blown up to 110,938- an increase of 152%. The courthouse in Muncie -built in 1887 at a cost of $227,250.06- was stuck serving two times the combined amount of residents that its nearly identical twins in Warsaw and Rockville were individually required to serve.
Commissioners floated a replacement as early as 1938 when Delaware County’s population grew to nearly 74,000 people, but the effort was rebuked5. By 1944, The Muncie Evening Press noted that the bell inside the clock tower had fallen silent and the clocks no longer provided the same time on each face. 162 feet below, a broken limestone staircase was deemed a “monument to neglect” by the same newspaper.
Regardless of gravity of the situation preservationists kept at it, pointing to an extensive interior renovation that allowed neighboring Grant County to keep its historic courthouse in Marion. Unfortunately, studies indicated that Muncie’s was essentially impossible to modernize due to the “unusual width of [its] bearing partitions.” Even so, any theoretical reconfiguration of its floor plan would have provided next to no additional space6.
The situation kept getting worse. Forced to rent thousands of feet of office space elsewhere downtown to supplement the cramped quarters of the old courthouse, local officials watched enviously as Floyd County constructed the state’s first City-County Building- a structure that not only consolidated all county offices under one roof, but sparked a rejuvenation of downtown New Albany as well7.
Fed up, the county finally issued $2.9 million in bonds to construct the new courthouse. Delaware County citizens finally came around and the project was enthusiastically funded. The old courthouse met the wrecking ball in late 1966.
Its replacement was planned for the future and able to serve a population of 200,000. The New York consultancy firm Becker & Becker recommended a minimum of 57,000 square feet across four floors to accommodate seven new county offices moving in from rented quarters. Extra space in the auditor’s office would be allocated for the anticipated use of computers. A drive-thru window would be incorporated for the treasurer’s office.8
Construction took two years and upon completion, it was clear that the architects had designed a strikingly modern building, both visually and functionally. A concrete structure featuring narrow windows and a cantilevered east wing, the fourth Delaware County Courthouse was heralded by civic and business leaders as a boon to Muncie’s attempts at a revitalized downtown. It held 80,000 square feet over three stories and a basement, and could accommodate additional floors if ever needed. An expansion to the east was conceptualized in order to anchor the north end of a planned Walnut Street pedestrian mall.9
Despite the designers’ foresight and the optimism of local officials, the 1969 courthouse only served in that capacity for twenty-three years. In April of 1992, county courts moved to the much-maligned Delaware County Justice Center, a building so onerous that after two years of delays, $6 million in cost overruns, and 526 change orders, two judges hated it so much that they refused to set foot in it and vacate the older building10.
Eventually there was order in the court, and the fourth Delaware County Courthouse continues to stand proudly even if it no longer houses the judicial system.
The building also stands as a fine example of the brutalist style for fans of modern architecture, and for fans of traditional courthouse design it serves as a cautionary tale- after all, it only took the citizens of Muncie about fifty years to start kicking around the idea of replacing their own traditional courthouse.
In contrast, the fourth Delaware County Courthouse isn’t going anywhere forty-nine years later. Still serving the community as the administrative center of county government, the building also serves as a unique contribution to Indiana’s portfolio of courthouse architecture. Although it doesn’t feature many of the characteristics of a classic courthouse and is newer than most in the state, the building has long since joined the ranks of Indiana’s historic courthouses and whenever its final day comes, I suspect the outcry over its loss will equal or surpass that of its predecessor….at least from me.
Delaware County (pop. 117,671, 14/92)
Muncie (pop. 70.085).
Cost: $2.4 million ($15.67 million in 2016)
Architect: Hamilton, Graham Associates and George W. Cox
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: County offices
Photographed: 8/15/15, 7/18/16
1 Esther C. Wade “She’s Opposed to New Courthouse” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] September 17 1965: 4. Print.
2 “Commissioners Tell Courthouse Plans” The Muncie Star [Muncie] September 8 1965: 1. Print.
3 “’Citizens Army Launches Petition Drive for New Courthouse” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] September 10 1965: 14. Print.
4“Courthouse Or New Jail Here? No Decision!” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] May 20 1938: 1. Print.
5 “Taxpayers Association Backs New Courthouse” The Muncie Star [Muncie] September 23 1965: 8. Print.
6 “Plans for New Courthouse Get Labor Council’s Full Support” The Muncie Star [Muncie] September 8 1965: 1. Print.
7 “New Albany Builds Remedy for Decay” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] July 9, 1965: 1. Print.
8 “Needs Outlined for Courthouse In Space Study” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] July 12, 1966: 1. Print.
9 “That New Cornerstone Is a Milestone, Too” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] October 25, 1968: 5. Print.
10 “Justice” The Muncie Star [Muncie] April 19, 1992: 14. Print.