So far in Indiana, we’ve lost 26 historic courthouses to fire1, seven to disrepair, and one to a damn tornado. Fortunately, the losses have died off in the last thirty years, and the trend’s actually reversed. Today, we’re left with three out of three remaining art deco courthouses in the state. If Robert Gray had his way in 1987 though, we’d be down to two.
Gray wasn’t a pyro, nor was he a county commissioner with shady ties to an excavation and demolition contractor. He was just a 42-year-old laborer at the local Chrysler plant in Kokomo. A blue-collar guy with charges pending- a blue-collar guy with a bomb in his briefcase.
Free on bond and accused of dealing drugs to an undercover officer, Gray detonated his briefcase bomb during a break in the trial that led him to the Sheriff John Beatty’s office on the third floor of the Howard County Courthouse. The blast put fifteen people in the hospital including the sheriff, who suffered burns across 25% of his body as well as injuries from embedded shrapnel2. The 1937 courthouse suffered extensive damage as well- the blast showered glass and debris across Sycamore Street3, obliterated several sections of its wall, and buckled the southwest portion of the roof4. Despite the scope of the wreckage, no one was killed. Well, no one except Gray himself, at least- he died at the scene.
The Chrysler plant Gray worked at was evacuated due to reports of an additional bomb threat and later that evening officers found live bombs in Gray’s trailer. Fearing the possibility of severe structural damage and additional explosives planted around the courthouse, officers sealed it off, preventing the coroner from getting in and confirming that Gray had, in fact, perished. Although repairing the damage took more than a year and cost more than a million dollars5 ($2.2 million today), most officials felt safe enough, and still had an undamaged space available, to return to the courthouse for work the next day, and that’s a testament to its hardy limestone construction. In my observation, buildings constructed with funds from the Works Progress Administration tend to be some of the toughest around.
A strong, hardy building was what county officials needed in 1936. The previous courthouse –a circa-1870, Second Empire structure with a 126-foot-tall clock tower- had been torn down in 1927 due to structural deterioration6 and county officials had been shacking up in storefronts around town ever since. They let it go on for nine years until the WPA (a massive New Deal agency that employed millions of people and financed construction projects throughout the country during the Great Depression) enabled the creation of a new courthouse.
Indiana courthouse design had come a long way since the days of the mansard roof. Architectural preferences had cycled through the Richardson Romanesque and Neoclassical styles to arrive at a new juncture by the mid-30s. The state’s most recent courthouse, built in Daviess County in 1929, was already looking outmoded as a new wave of architectural stylings began to crest stateside from France. Architect Oscar Cook took this inspiration and ran with it, giving us the Art Deco Howard County Courthouse we see today.
Wikipedia says Art Deco represented “luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress.” That fit Kokomo. The old courthouse predated the 1880s gas boom, when businesses flocked to Kokomo. The influx of industry led to the community naming itself ‘The City of Firsts’, and not without good reason. Pneumatic rubber tires, stainless steel, howitzer shells, canned tomato juice, push-button car radios, and the Ponderosa Steakhouse all got their start in the city, not to mention a little thing called THE CAR: Elwood Haynes test-drove his first horseless carriage down Pumpkinvine Pike in 1894 (a real road, but you’ll sound like an idiot if you ask someone in town where it is- it’s called Goyer Road today).
Yep, more than fifty years before Robert Gray’s act of vengeance, Kokomo was booming in another way and needed a courthouse that matched its image. Well, they got it. The building’s east and west sides consist of eleven recessed bays separated by rectangular pilasters that, from close up, emphasize the courthouse’s height. Wide projections frame the mass of the building on each corner and extend nearly to the building’s flat roof.
That’s all very nice, but the devil’s in the details and this courthouse has details aplenty. For starters, check out the carved band of interwoven scallops and bead and reel molding that spans the top of the building. Or look at the engraved spandrel paneling that serves to vertically separate the windows. Stylized capitals top the pilasters that define the window bays. Although the courthouse doesn’t shout it in your face, these elements are undoubtedly Art Deco, and it took me a few trips to Kokomo to appreciate how each detail contributes to the overall aesthetic.
The Howard County Courthouse is only a baby compared to the rest of the state’s collection, considered to be one of the most modern historic courthouses in the state along with its Art Deco contemporaries in Shelbyville and Covington7. Unfortunately, Indiana’s more modern structures are usually left to eat all by themselves in the historic courthouse cafeteria. Popular opinion seems to be that the detail and intricacy so common in the old courthouses is just absent from newer ones. I have to admit that popular opinion is, for the most part, right. But the Howard County Courthouse proves it wrong. The detail’s there if you look for it.
Take the steps leading to the building’s main entrance. They’re framed by tall, streamlined lanterns and in case you missed it, the entry projection features Art Deco detailing on each side. While most county courthouses might be content with a bust of Washington, Lincoln, or a personified Liberty, the doors of Howard County’s feature busts of two local heroes: the inventor Elwood Haynes and David Foster, the founder of Kokomo. These elements are rare amongst our courthouses.
It would have been such a shame if the courthouse hadn’t withstood that blast thirty years ago, but some good did come from it. The bombing resulted in several new security procedures, including the addition of a dedicated canine unit (the county had been using nearby Grissom Air Force Base’s bomb dog), a computer networking system for communications, and a new crisis radio configuration8. Hopefully, it also strengthened our appreciation for our less common historic courthouses.
As we’ve seen above, Kokomo has made unique and crucial contributions to Indiana’s culture and history, not to mention the culture and history of the Beach Boys. So it’s only fitting that its stately courthouse is both important and unique, itself. As the Art Deco style has lately inspired aesthetics everywhere from interior design to engagement rings to fashion collections, now’s the perfect time to pause to appreciate the beauty that is Howard County’s 30s-glam courthouse. From boomtown to bomb town, the courthouse continues to anchor Kokomo’s downtown.
Howard County (pop. 82,760, 18/92)
Kokomo (pop. 56,895).
Cost: $450,000 ($7.78 million in 2016)
Architect: Oscar F. Cook
Style: Art Deco
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 Enyart, David. “Fires and Tornadoes” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
2. “Drug Defendant Believed Dead in Bomb Blast in Courthouse” The New York Times [New York]. April 15, 1987. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
3 “Courthouse Bomb Kills Drug Suspect” The Chicago Tribune [Chicago]. April 15, 1987. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
4 “30 years after Howard County Courthouse bombing, survivors still remember the terror” The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
5 “The Courthouse back in 1920” The Kokomo Herald [Kokomo]. March 29, 2013. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
6 “Kokomo was not built in a day” Visit Kokomo Blog. Kokomo Visitors Bureau. December 9, 2011. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
7 Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
8 “Explosion alters some procedures” The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. April 15, 1988: 3. Print.