The level of scorn commonly heaped onto Indiana’s modern courthouses sort of amazes me for a couple of reasons. The first is that 84 out 92 counties in Indiana still retain at least one historic courthouse- that’s 92 percent! Modern courthouses are rare around these parts, and that makes them a little more special to me. The second is that a lot of the historic courthouses found around the state are pretty much just copies of one another. Spend a few days driving around to John Gaddis’ courthouses in Greencastle, Huntington, and Brazil, or to Elmer Dunlap’s in Delphi, Rockport, and Petersburg, and you’ll understand what I mean.
George Bunting drew up a lot of similar ones too, including the courthouse Madison County demolished in the early 70s to make way for the county’s present-day government center. Fans of architecture needn’t mourn, though- we can still appreciate the lost building by driving an hour northwest to Frankfort to see the Clinton County Courthouse. Bunting designed it too, and it’s a mirror image of Anderson’s. Trade the limestone for red brick and, boy howdy, you’ve got yourself a twin!
As in Clinton County, the previous Madison County Courthouse was a great example of the Second Empire style translated through a Hoosier lens, but the building in Anderson had to come down. What happened? Well, just like in Muncie, population growth had a lot to do with it. Between 1880 and 1960, Clinton County’s population grew by 7,293 people– good for a 28.9% per the U.S. Census. By comparison, Madison County’s population swelled by a monstrous 98,292 people in the same timeframe, nearly 190%. As early as 1955, county commissioners realized that they needed more room to conduct official business and commissioned a study to explore several different possibilities1. Two years later, a $1.5 million bond was floated to construct an addition, an annex, or an entire new courthouse2. The need was there, but residents didn’t quite see it.
They should have, though- the situation was bad. Have you ever played Sardines? It’s a version of Hide-and-Seek where only one person hides. As the seekers locate the fugitive, they join the conspiracy and the hideout gets more and more cramped. The loser is the last person to find everyone. Well, imagine playing that with a hundred exasperated bureaucrats in a cramped, rotting building and you have an idea of what the old courthouse was like- except the loser was Madison County as a whole. Employees of the township assessor’s office were forced to work in the third floor stairwell. Other workers were relegated to hallways or overcrowded alcoves, while records and documents were stacked wherever there was room- often overflowing into the building’s halls3.
The courthouse wasn’t just too small, though- it was dangerous. That staircase that the assessor’s office worked out of was the only means of escape for people on all three floors in the event of a fire. Exposed wiring, switchboxes, conduit, and pipes complemented the building’s décor and decorated its ceilings. Outside, the foundation was breaking away from the rest of the building and plants brazenly grew in the cracks. Two sets of outside stairs were closed after people tripped and lawsuits were filed. The attic was stuffed full of dead birds, feathers, and tons and tons of guano4.
Stupefied officials watched jealously as several counties around the state built new courthouses. In 1962, they traveled to New Albany to tour its new City-County Building and returned impressed5. Seven years later, commissioners attended the 1969 open house for neighboring Delaware County’s new courthouse6. Although the clock tower had long since ceased to show the same time on all four clock faces7, officials knew it was time to act. Finally, by June of 1972, the decrepit courthouse was no more, replaced by a gaping hole in the city square that soon became home to a modern government center that Madison County could be proud of.
$4 million (about $24 million today) bought Madison County a lot of courthouse. 65,000 square feet spread over four stories was finally enough room for all the ersatz county offices that had been scattered around town to be contained under one roof8. Although a few vocal residents spoke up in protest that the courthouse didn’t match the veneer of the recently-completed Anderson City Hall, the building ended up featuring light brown bricks and bronzed windows modeled after, oddly enough, the Standard Oil Company Research Center complex in Naperville, Illinois9. Officials were finally satisfied, but there was trouble brewing (cue the ominous music) from deep within those brick courthouse walls.
In 1982, people began to notice something falling from the sky. It wasn’t guano left over from the old courthouse’s attic, but it was worse- the building’s bricks were shearing off of its walls and falling into the sidewalk. A study provided some clarity, determining that a faulty mortar additive used to attach the bricks to the courthouse structure was to blame, and the county scrambled to fix the problem by covering the damaged walls with glass paneling, giving the courthouse its present-day appearance and firmly modern style. However, the loss of so much brick led the building to be structurally questionable and perhaps as dangerous as its predecessor, forcing officials to add additional fortifications to prevent the building from toppling in the wind10.
Other than requiring asbestos remediation that is expected to displace county government until later this year, the Madison County Government Center has stood tall ever since, without a stylistic peer in the state’s courthouse portfolio. Although it’s unquestionably modern, the building does echo traditional design in places. Three brick spikes punctuate the building’s roofline and feature clock faces and a bell. And a landscaped public square sits under the courthouse’s cantilevered mass, prominently displaying the cornerstone of the 1885 courthouse on its northwest side.
One thing I’ve always loved about Indiana’s historic courthouses is the sense of permanence they imply through their scale and design. Madison County’s does too, although in a different way. While other buildings across the state may be more majestic, I can’t think of any that reflect their enduring presence in a more dynamic or literal way than this one. The courthouse’s mirror-like walls frame its changing environs -from an incoming storm to an outgoing sunset- in a way that can’t be matched by the limestone or brick of a historic structure.
Not to mention the people going by! To stand before the Madison County Courthouse is to watch an eternal parade of citizens- the courthouse itself almost becomes an active participant rather than a passive onlooker. The building assures us that no matter how much times may change, we can rely on our courthouses to strive to uphold the most honorable democratic ideals. Obviously any courthouse can inspire those thoughts, but there’s something maybe a little more powerful about seeing these truths literally reflected back at us in a mirror. Despite changing times and changing seasons, the Madison County Courthouse stands firmly, reflecting the face of the community back to those people who care to look. I’m proud to be one of them.
Madison County (pop. 130,482, 13/92)
Anderson (pop. 55,670).
Built: 1972, remodeled in 1983.
Cost: $4 million ($24 million today)
Architect: Johnson, Ritchhart & Assoc.
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 4 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Council Approves Funds; Courthouse Plan Studied” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. May 13, 1955: 1. Print.
2 “County Board Seeks $1,500,000 Bond Issue for New Courthouse” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. October 16, 1957: 1. Print.
3 “Isn’t it time you did something about your Madison County Courthouse?” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. February 24, 1966: 10. Print
4 “County Attorney Answers Questions On Dilemma At The Courthouse” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. June 3, 1969: 1. Print.
5 “City-County Building” The Anderson Daily Bulletin [Anderson]. July 21, 1962: 4. Print.
6 “Delaware County Celebrates, Madison County Waits” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. September 7, 1969: 1. Print
7 “Old Courthouse- Before the New Wore Off” The Anderson Daily Bulletin [Anderson]. September 21, 1973: 45. Print.
8 “New Government Center” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. March 28, 1972: 4. Print.
9 “Courthouse Plans Are Unchanged” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. May 13, 1972: 1. Print.
10 “Update on county litigation” The Call-Leader [Elwood]. December 29, 1984: 1. Print.