Have you ever wanted to tear down an old courthouse, but couldn’t because of an obscure law dictating that the courthouse square had to hold a courthouse at all times or else its ownership would revert to the heirs of the guy who deeded it to you in the first place more than a century ago?
Me neither. But it allegedly happened in Lawrence County, so officials had to get creative when they replaced their 1872 courthouse, asking that architect Walter Scholar keep the front wall standing while they built the new one nearby. Scholar did them one better, building the 1930 structure around the old one so a courthouse would continuously stand on the square, circumventing the arcane decree and saving most of the old building.
Nowadays, we’d call it historic preservation or adaptive reuse but the citizens of Lawrence County probably didn’t. No, the community probably thought of the unique circumstances of the building’s construction as just another brush with courthouse drama. After all, the county’s first seat, Palestine, was abandoned due to ‘recurring illness’ after only seven years1. It seems that miasm and “malignant fever” ravaged the community enough that they petitioned the state in 1825 to move the county seat away from the White River2, which they presumed to be the source of all the problems. What’s miasm? It’s a condition that refers to one or more of symptoms including sycosis (not psychosis, but an inflammation of the beard follicles), psora (scabies), and syphilis (we all know what that is). Great!
Just imagine abandoning a county seat. It’s happened a few times recently, but due to illness? Unheard of in modern times. But it happened, and upon relocating to Bedford, the county blew threw two courthouses in 44 years before reasoning that they needed a new, more permanent structure. The crazy things we do when our beards, skin, and, erm…clock towers itch!
Multiple sites, contractors, and plans were considered, developed, and discarded for the new courthouse before officials actually started building the thing. Initially, the public demanded that the courthouse be located away from the square due to the vast amounts of noise and dirt kicked up by the nearby railroad. Commissioners tried to appease them and bought two other plots of land before a competing group insisted that the courthouse be built on the square after all, larger and grander than originally intended. To sweeten the pot, a $1500 “inducement” (read: bribe) was provided that sealed the deal. Bonds were issued. The courthouse, designed by Thomas N. Stevens, was finished in 1872 at a cost of $75,000 ($1.56 million today).
What’d it look like? Well, take a look at the central portion of the current courthouse. Good! It looked like that, albeit with a hipped roof, thin cupola, and some chimneys. One of most unusual features for the time was that the water for the basement bathrooms was provided by rainfall collected from the roof3, which then drained into a large, purpose-built sewer, an early form of green engineering. An 1884 history of the area called the building “a credit to the county”. Here it is, depicted on an old postcard I bought:
After thirty years though, the building didn’t impress anyone. By 1914, publisher B.F. Hutton’s history of Lawrence County conceded that the building’s architectural style was outmoded compared to the neoclassical courthouses being erected across the state. Nevertheless, the structure appeared to have been well-built and remained a secure, “comfortable” home for the county officials who used it4.
Now, anyone who knows anything about real estate knows that “comfortable” is probably one step above “cozy”, which usually translates to cramped, restrictive, and uncomfortable. This may have rung a bell with county commissioners by the late 1920s, when they started formulating plans to build a new courthouse- again. They didn’t have much choice. Even if the building actually did have enough space, 72 new courthouses had been constructed across the state since 1872 (many using limestone from quarries in Bedford’s own backyard), and it was time for Lawrence County to keep up with the Joneses- not to mention the Monroes, Jacksons, and Greenes, adjacent counties which all had newer courthouses. Like their neighbors, they wanted nothing to do with the old building anymore- it’d have to come down.
But that’s when that pesky land agreement came into play. Remember? Unless the planners and architects could guarantee that the a courthouse would stand on the lot AT ALL TIMES, they’d lose their claim to the public square which had been part of town since 18255. If they tore down the old one, it’d be no more town square for Bedford. To expertly navigate the stipulation, commissioners turned to the aforementioned Scholar.
Walter Scholar (best known for designing 75 buildings on the campus of Purdue University) intended to preserve most of the original Italianate courthouse by converting it into an entrance and lobby for two neoclassical wings that would add much-needed space to the east and west sides of the building6. Some parts of the old building would have to go, though- in a concession to contemporary tastes, the hipped roof and cupola of the original courthouse were flattened and replaced by a classical balustrade featuring four urns. Inside, the south entrance leads to a grand staircase that provides access to the two-story-tall courtroom.
Other courthouses in the state have undergone massive expansions that effectively created brand new courthouses, such as Connersville’s in 1890 and Scottsburg’s more than a century later. However, the Lawrence County Courthouse is unique in that both old and ‘new’ portions of the building are identifiable from the outside (unlike in Connersville, where the new construction completely encapsulated the old building), and that both portions are historic (unlike in Scottsburg, where the new courthouse will attain the 50-year milestone in 2047). To me, the combination of designs in the Lawrence County Courthouse create a sum greater than its parts, especially when compared to the many neoclassical courthouses that dot the state as if from a cookie-cutter.
We can credit Thomas N. Stevens, we can credit Walter Scholar, or we can credit both for the distinctive building that they designed. But I think I’ll choose door number four: To the original owner of Bedford’s courthouse square, whoever you are, I salute you. Thank you for your ridiculous rule, and thank you for your part in creating another unique Indiana courthouse.
Lawrence County (pop. 45,844, 32/92)
Bedford (pop. 13,380)
Built: 1870, enlarged in 1930.
Cost: $390,000 (1930). ($5.6 million in 2016)
Architect: Thomas N. Stevens (1970), Walter Scholer (1930).
Style: Italianate (1870), Neoclassical(1930).
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: Some county courts
1 Enyart, David. “Lawrence County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. February 15, 2018.”
2 Palestine, Indiana. Lawrence County Genealogy Trails History Group. Genealogy Trails. 2009. Retrieved from http://www.genealogytrails.com
3 History of Lawrence, Orange, and Washington Counties. Chicago. Goodspeed Bros. & Co., 1884. Print.
4 History of Lawrence and Monroe Counties Indiana. Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Co., 1914. Print.
5 Exploring Indiana’s Historic Sites, Markers & Museums– South Central Edition. Mossy Feet Books. 2015. E-Book.
6. Kruse, Maxine. Bedford. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2006. Print.