You may not be aware, but the 21st century is an exciting time for Indiana’s historic courthouses. More and more county seats across the state are rediscovering the value of restoring their landmark governmental buildings, and restoring them in an architecturally sympathetic manner is a growing trend across the country. However, it looks like one notable entry in the state’s portfolio of historic courthouses might not get that chance.
Although at least six historic courthouses across Indiana lost their clock towers in the 20th century, contemporary efforts have reintroduced two. Jefferson County’s returned after a 2009 fire gutted the building1, and Randolph County’s was restored in 2011 as part of a massive renovation project. Soon, courthouses in Montgomery and Martin counties will boast prominent clock towers as well once work finishes up later this year. It would be a real shame for this restoration trend to be upset, however that’s the situation we may soon find ourselves in. The Washington County Courthouse in Salem already lost its clock tower once, and unless something changes with the deteriorating structure, it may go away again- for good.
Originally built in 1888, the structure is truly unique among its peers in Indiana. As far as design goes, Romanesque Revival buildings are fairly common across the state. 14 out of 92 courthouses, or fifteen percent, were built in this monumental style, which used medieval themes to imply a sense of permanence and weight through heavy masonry, polygonal towers, and rounded arches. Many look similar to one another, but Salem’s stands out. The first Romanesque Revival courthouse in the state, Washington County’s was a local effort, built from limestone quarried a mile out of town2. It stands two stories above a raised basement and features windows that bring light to the attic level underneath a hipped roof with a deck. One distinctive feature is the main entrance, which is accessed through a projecting, columned porch.
All this is well and good, but the crowning feature of the building, its clock tower, rises a dramatic five stories from the southwest corner of the building in a succession of shapes. The tower’s square third story is topped by an octagonal fourth story that features four six-foot-wide clock faces. The fifth story is a cylinder, which itself is capped by a conical roof. This distinctive arrangement epitomizes how exceptional this one is, and represents a radical departure from the designs of the prolific McDonald Brothers’ other courthouses, such as their Gibson County Courthouse in Princeton, or the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg, which they extensively remodeled.
And unfortunately, it’s precisely this clock tower that’s been causing all the problems lately. More accurately, its shoddy repairs from a lightning strike that set the clock tower on fire that are the real problem. A severe electrical storm on the night of July 12, 1934 caused a fire that destroyed the clock tower down to its masonry, causing $5,000 ($94,000 today) in damages, twice what the courthouse was insured for. It took firefighters three hours to subdue the blaze, and although it destroyed the clocktower bell, the clocks themselves continued to function as normal throughout the ordeal3!
Yes, the clock took a licking but kept on ticking- in real life. The surrounding tower was restored, but water trapped in the stone during that process led to deterioration over the years. Although efforts to repair the structure began as early as 19964, nothing was done. As it stands, the tower is extremely unstable, and it could take as little as a strong gust of wind to send it flying into downtown Salem. Indeed, the portion of the square around and underneath the tower was fenced off when I was there two years ago although county business seemed to be carrying on as usual. Courthousing has proven to be a pretty safe hobby, but maybe Washington County was an exception- unfortunately, Courthousery.com doesn’t provide me with insurance for accidental death and dismemberment. Nevertheless, I soldier on.
There’s been little debate regarding whether the building, described by Washington County historian Jeremy Elliott as “the cherished centerpiece of the county,” and “our beautiful limestone castle5” should be kept whole or not. Unfortunately, it sucks living in the rural rust belt, where resources are few and far between and the struggle for funding is real. Washington County is rural, with no major highways and a population of only 27,670. Statistically, the county’s per capita and household incomes are about 29% lower than the United States average, and family income is about 24% behind the countrywide average6. It’s not a shocker to hear, then, that the county’s unemployment rate is much higher than the state’s average, as is the amount of residents living below the poverty line5. What’s this mean for the courthouse? Well, when the fifth-largest employer in the county is a single Wal-Mart store7, money’s a little harder to come by for seemingly less urgent projects. In 1888, all it took was a little bit of civic pride for Washington County to secure the funds to construct a brand new monument to the community. Unfortunately in 2018, it takes a lot more to do a lot less.
By a lot less, I mean to fix the clock tower of course. Now, make no mistake: If the clock tower was removed instead of repaired, the courthouse would still be a good-looking building. A glance at a few photos makes it easy to see how it would appear if each element were deleted, right down to the tower’s third story (the square). However, it would still be a damn shame to reverse the statewide restoration trend, especially in the case of such a unique courthouse. That clock tower just adds so much to downtown Salem, and it’s hard to think that in this day and age with so much focus on historic preservation, removing the tower would even be considered. It needs to be repaired.
In an effort to spur public sentiment, Indiana Landmarks added the courthouse to its annual 10 Most Endangered list in 2016, where it remains today. I’ve followed the saga ever since and am relieved to see that bids to stabilize the tower and repair the roof and masonry will be taken by county officials on March fifth8. With a little bit of luck, the clock tower will stand for a long time to come, and I’m excited to go back to visit when the lawn isn’t cordoned off and the risk of being hit in the head with a brick is back down to more tolerable levels.
Washington County (pop. 28,289, 57/92)
Salem ( pop. 6,238)
Built: 1888, clocktower rebuilt in 1934 after fire.
Cost: $74,037 ($1.97 million in 2016)
Architect: H, K, &R McDonald
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Lancaster Square
Height: 5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 4/3/2016- 79/92
1. “Courthouse sustains heavy fire damage” The Madison Courier [Madison] May 21, 2009. Retrieved from https://madisoncourier.com.
2. National Register of Historic Places, Washington County Courthouse, Salem, Washington County, Indiana, National Register # 80000047.
3 “Bolt Hits Tower of Courthouse” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis] July 12, 1934: 15. Print.
4 “Money, not time, holds man from tower of dreams” The Courier-Journal [Louisville] March 10, 1996: 1B. Print.
5 “ Group tolls bell for ailing courthouse in Salem” The Courier-Journal [Louisville] April 28, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.courierjournal.com.
6 “Washington County, Indiana” American Fact Finder. United States Census Bureau. 2018. Retrieved from https://factfinder.census.gov.
7 “Major Employers for Washington County” Hoosiers By The Numbers. Indiana Department of Workforce Development. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.hoosierdata.in.gov.
8 “Washington County Courthouse Clock Tower – Stabilization, Masonry & Roof Repairs” Indiana Bid Network. North American Procurement Council. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.indianabids.com.