The rate that many early Indiana counties blew through county seats and courthouses is astounding. Whether due to recurring illness, natural disasters, Machiavellian politics, or a combination of all of it, it’s not uncommon to find counties that built three or four different courthouses before a permanent county seat was established. On the other hand, it’s almost unheard of for a modern county seat to cycle through them so rapidly, but that’s the situation we find ourselves in here in Muncie. We’re preparing to get our third courthouse in the past thirty years.
I covered the old courthouse, the 1969 Delaware County Building, here and briefly mentioned the present structure, the 1992 Delaware County Justice Center. Built in response to a 1978 inmate lawsuit1, the building was intended to house civil defense offices, a 911 communications center, offices for county police, the courts, and a jail2. Even though the county building was aging gracefully and had even been designed to expand if needed3, I guess it made sense at the time to put the courts where the jail was. So that’s what they did.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy- this was Muncie, after all, a city notorious for boondoggles, corruption, and poor leadership. Construction presented numerous defects that necessitated literally 526 change orders to the original plans. Those modifications resulted in a two-year delay and a cost overrun of $6 million- half again what the building was projected to amount to. The situation was so bad that, by 1990, a federal judge appointed a Shelbyville lawyer as ‘Special Master of the Justice Center,’ giving him full control over the project. County commissioners even fired and sued the original architects and engineers, alleging breach of contract and negligence. Fed up citizens came up with a slew of pejorative nicknames for the courthouse, including the ‘Injustice Center’ (heh) and the ‘Just Off-Center’ (hah!).
The replacement architect was J. Robert Taylor, the same guy that later designed the expanded Randolph County Courthouse. Poor Bob Taylor- he did as well as anyone could hope to, but acknowledged the building’s derisive monikers by confirming that it was, in fact, “off-center in every way,” and that “there were a lot of dimensional problems4.” One such problem was with the building’s grand staircase, which was designed in an open manner that allowed people to walk behind and smack their heads on it. Taylor brought in some gigantic potted plants –we’re talking palms that rose fourteen feet high- to surround the staircase and lessen the probability of an injury or a lawsuit.
The justice center finally opened in stages in 1992, but the problems were far from over. Just within that one year, it was discovered that the warranty for the building’s electrical equipment was set to expire before the justice center would even be fully occupied. Then, Judge Richard Dailey refused to move his court from the county building because his new offices sucked. Next, the building’s new computers didn’t work so commissioners sued the company that provided them. Soon after that, furniture that was supposed to be moved from the county building to the justice center wound up missing. Finally, a convicted drug-dealer escaped.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the contractor for the justice center’s detention equipment went out of business that June, and two months later officials learned that the shuttered company still had keys to all of the jail cells! Not long after, the justice center’s building manager quit after several days on the job and by October, fire code violations in the new building were made public for the second time in a year5. It was a total train wreck- a train wreck that the county would pay for over the course of another 22 years, at a final estimated cost of $63 million. That’s enough to lock in two years of prime Russell Westbrook! If only Muncie had an NBA team. Maybe he’ll move here during the offseason- his kids could go to Burris.
Despite finally paying for the building, officials weren’t out of the woods yet. Originally designed to hold 120 inmates, the jail was housing more than 300 people by 2017, and a state inspector told officials that the building was headed for a “critical” incident unless something changed6. You can imagine that all those inmates weren’t pleased with their cramped quarters, and they protested: the jail was located above the courts, and ill-tempered prisoners routinely displayed their aggression by stuffing their toilets with rags, which flooded the courtrooms. County officials started to get real about relocating everything. Again.
They actually had a chance to solve the problem in 2015 after Muncie Community Schools downsized and closed Wilson Middle School. But rather than deed the building to the county, the city’s (ahem…corrupt…ahem) redevelopment commission brokered a deal to sell it to a local property management company, ASONS, which appeared to be on the verge of an enormous expansion. The projected growth didn’t happen, though, and ASONS put the property up for sale again7, after just two years of ownership. This time, Delaware County government jumped at the chance to buy the old school by plunking down nearly $3 million. Their intent is to spend up to $45 million to renovate it into a new, 500-bed jail8 by 2020.
Well, we’ll cross our fingers and see if it happens! But this blog isn’t about jails, it’s about courthouses. When the jail finally ends up relocating, the courts and prosecutor will almost certainly follow it. Officials say that transportation and logistical issues would preclude the county from having two facilities so far away from each other9.
Even though it’d move the courts away from downtown, I’d be fine with that. Erected in 1995, the Wilson building could easily pass for a modern courthouse, and its brick construction, scale, and symmetry would make it competitive with any of its peers across the state. Classically-influenced details like the repeating gable motifs, arched louvers, columned entryways, and pyramidal skylights would mean a huge stylistic step forward from the uninspired, mind-numbing justice center and even its predecessor, the Delaware County Building, which I am a fan of.
The prospective courthouse doesn’t just look the part- it’s also huge, sprawling more than 200,000 square feet on an enormous plot of land. As a former school, it obviously has classrooms, an auditorium, a huge gym, an industrial cafeteria, and all the trimmings. But it also has a second gym that seats more than 900 people, a natatorium, and wrestling facilities. Apparently, ASONS only ever got around to converting part of the first floor to office space, so county officials would have free reign to easily reconfigure the building to their needs without a duplication of efforts. As for the justice center? Well, I’d imagine that officials would bulldoze it. At least that’d make me feel better about violating my rule and taking photos of a modern judicial complex, and Muncie could always use another pocket park. But this is all still theoretical, of course. The sale hasn’t yet been finalized.
Naturally, a website about Indiana’s historic courthouses isn’t going to be geared towards current events. But covering the continuing saga of the Delaware County Justice Center was an easy decision. Not only does the situation (hopefully) involve the adaptive reuse of a former school, but it provides an intriguing mirror of the circumstances many early counties found themselves in as they switched rapidly from courthouse to courthouse. With any luck, Delaware County’s forty-year-long nightmare will soon draw to a close, and we’ll have another courthouse in Indiana’s portfolio for years to come for the county’s trouble.
Delaware County (pop. 117,671, 14/92)
Muncie (pop. 70.085).
Cost: $63 million (estimated)
Architect: Graham, Love, and Graham; J. Robert Taylor
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: County courts, offices, and jail
Photographed: 7/18/16 and 3/18/18
1 Roysdon, Keith. “Delaware County to buy former Wilson Middle School for new jail” The Star Press [Muncie]: February 27, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.thestarpress.com.
2 Slabaugh, Seth. “Open house set at Justice Center” The Star Press [Muncie] · April 7, 1992: 3. Print.
3 “That New Cornerstone is a Milestone, Too” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] October 25, 1968: 5. Print.
4 “Justice” The Muncie Star [Muncie] April 19, 1992: 14. Print.
5 “It’s built, and it’s occupied, but the story isn’t over yet” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. December 27, 1992: 1 Print.
6 “New Delaware County jail: Up to $50 million, 500 beds” Indiana Economic Digest. January 2, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.indianaeconomicdigest.com.
7 Roysdon, Keith “Former Wilson Middle School up for sale – again” The Star Press [Muncie]: July 12, 2017. Retrieved from http://www.thestarpress.com.
8 Delaware County Buys Old Wilson School For New Jail” February 28, 2018. WBAT. Retrieved from http://www.wbat.com.
9 Walker, D. & Roysdon, K. “New jail facility likely to include courts, prosecutor” The Star Press [Muncie]. March 10, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.thestarpress.com.