Quick- jot this down! “It must be free from dampness, which would destroy the precious records of the county, on which so much of the ‘peace and quiet’ of our community depends. It must, of course, be fire proof and sufficiently commodious for all legitimate purposes not only now, but for many years to come; must be of durable materials, and last, it must be ‘good looking,’ a monument of the enterprise and taste of the people of one of the wealthy counties of the State2.”
That’s the edict Henry County officials threw down in 1864 before taking bids on a new courthouse to replace the previous one lost to fire. Let’s see. Free from dampness? Fireproof? Commodious? Hell, I could probably gather up a couple of buddies and a 30-rack of Coors and build something that checks those boxes in a weekend if we sacrificed the ‘good looking’ and ‘durable’ requirements. It took architect Isaac Hodgson a lot longer than that, of course, but the Henry County Courthouse in New Castle undoubtedly checked all the boxes and turned out a lot better for it. Officials certainly spent a lot more money than my buddies and I would have- $120,000, which is more than $2 million today. Some of that cost was due to the post-Civil War inflation that ran the country ragged but still- that works out to be a lot of bricks, wood, and beer.
Hodgson’s building, often considered the first Second Empire courthouse in the state, was “admirably planned, and in every essential feature all that a first-class public building should be3,’ according to local accounts. The first floor of the steam-heated courthouse held county offices, while a 3,250 square foot courtroom occupied more than half of the second floor4 and was more than twice the size of the entire old courthouse. A decorative staircase, made entirely of metal to thwart the threat of fire allowed for transit between the two floors. “Great indeed will Henry County have become,” opined the Inter-State Publishing Company of Chicago in their history of Henry County, “when the present court-house proves too small for its needs.”
It truly is an imposing building. Today, the main feature of the building is its 115’ (the equivalent of a ten-story building) clock tower, and the primary feature of the clock tower is a series of arches that delineate its different levels, separated from each other by stone string courses. The lowest arch is nearly flush with the ground and provides entry to the courthouse. Above it rests a two-story arch that features a statue of ‘Blind Justice’. Above that arch is, well, where things start to get a little tricky.
While researching this project, I came across an old postcard that seems to show the 1869 Henry County Courthouse sporting a very different clock tower than the one it has now. I’ve never seen another copy of that postcard, and I haven’t found anything that mentions any different clock tower- every other resource I’ve found implies that the current clock tower, which features a mansard roof, was original to the present building. Closer inspection of other historic postcards as well as my own photos indicates a pretty obvious color change in the brick between the second tower arch and the third, which holds a tablet that memorializes the building’s construction. The discrepancy in the brick aligns with the roofline of the building, which is at about the point where the old clock tower, if there was one, would have risen from the front of the courthouse.
Somebody call the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown- anyone! At first I thought the courthouse tower had been altered in 1906 when a substantial addition was made to the rear of the building. However, the plot thickens- I dug deeper and found some photos of the building without the addition, but with the current clock tower configuration. Damn! I thought I was getting somewhere. But the contents of old postcards and photos were frequently subjected to flights of fancy by their photographers, artists, and colorizers, so I don’t know. Maybe one of them is wrong. I’d love to find the answer.
If the clock tower and its mansard roof didn’t arrive in its present state until 1906, it would mean that the Henry County Courthouse wasn’t the first Second Empire courthouse in the state as is commonly thought- not by a long shot. It’d also mean an old photograph was wrong. It’d be an easier pill to swallow if the old postcard showing a different clock tower was mislabeled or airbrushed, but then we’d be left with the physical evidence, visible along the roof line, where the clock tower brick changes color. I think the best answer is probably that the Second Empire portion of the clock tower was added on sometime between 1884 and 1906, but I’d love to know for sure. It’s frustrating. Normally my research answers more questions than it uncovers.
At any rate, what’s not up for debate is that the courthouse arrived at its present-day appearance in 1906. The building’s expansion was masterfully designed to extend the building laterally, while meshing perfectly with its existing design. It brought more space for offices, as well as modern amenities like bathrooms and hot-water radiators5– by allowing man to heed nature’s call in a heated space, Henry County had achieved greatness. At least according to the Inter-State Publishing Company we heard from earlier.
Yet by the end of the 20th century, the Inter-State Publishing Company was proved wrong again- the county had aged out of the old courthouse and renovated the historic Masonic Hall building to hold county offices6. But the county needed even more space due to the aging layout of the old courthouse, so plans were made to construct a new justice center adjacent to the Masonic Hall and across the street from the courthouse. The five-story Bradway Building -built in 1900 as New Castle’s tallest commercial building6– took one for the team and met the wrecking ball to provide space for the new structure. The Henry County Courts Building was finished in June of 2001.
Now, I usually don’t care about justice centers, county buildings, or courthouse annexes, but Henry County did theirs the right way. Not only does the brick match the shade used in the courthouse, but look at the quoins, soffits, and cornice lines around the roof of the new building- they nearly match as well! Sure, the building has modern details, but it was the thoughtful design that inspired me to take a picture of it even though I had a strict policy against doing so for non-historic justice buildings. Its architecture, sympathetic to its surroundings, vaults it far ahead of its contemporaries in Hancock, Warrick, and Kosciusko counties, among others.
Add all this to the old Masonic Hall that Henry County contributed and I’m a major fan. Will I ever get a straight answer on the old courthouse’s clock tower? Probably not. I feel like I would have found it by now if it was out there. But although there are still some unanswered questions, it won’t stop me from appreciating the 1869 Henry County County Courthouse –maybe the state’s first Second Empire courthouse- and taking some more photos of it next time I’m there.
Henry County (pop. 49,044, 29/92)
New Castle (pop. 17,694).
Cost: $120,000 ($2.16 million in 2016)
Architect: Isaac Hodgson
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 115 feet
Current Use: Some county offices
1 “Hancock County Judicial Center” Projects. JRA Architects, 2017. Web. Retrieved from http://jrarchitects.com
2 Hazzard’s History of Henry County Indiana, 1822-1906, Vol. II. New Castle. George Hazzard, 1906. Print.
3 History of Henry County, Indiana. Chicago. Inter-State Publishing Co., 1884. Print.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Henry County Courthouse, New Castle, Henry County, Indiana, National Register # 81000013.
5 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Henry County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
6 “Indiana’s Historic Courthouses”. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
7 “Bradway Building” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.emporis.com.