As I’m happy to repeatedly assert without concession, we’re lucky to have so many historic courthouses in Indiana. But that’s not to say that keeping the venerable structures around has been easy! Courthouses across the state have been subject to wrecking balls, ugly renovations, tornadoes, and even bombings. It’s quite a portfolio of maladies that Indiana’s courthouses have been subjected to, but the most common danger has generally been the threat of fire. Many of the oldest were built before fireproofing was a thing, and historians have documented at least 42 conflagrations inside our courthouses. Of those 42 fires, 18 resulted in the major loss of county records. 26 totally destroyed county courthouses here1.
Well, make that 26.5 courthouses ruined by fire. On the icy morning of December 27, 1934, Porter County residents in Valparaiso woke to discover that most of their fifty-one year old courthouse was gone, ravaged by a blaze that started shortly after midnight2. Firefighters finally managed to put out the fire after eleven hours, leaving the building smoking, frozen, and resembling a ‘volcanic iceberg’ according to the local paper3.
The inferno was first noticed shortly after midnight by a policeman who saw what looked like lightning in the second-floor courtroom. By the time firefighters made it there, six-foot flames were visible through the big, arched windows of the building’s attic, and the fire was out of control. Breaking through a locked door to the building’s top story, they discovered that the situation was much, much worse than initially expected. After all, they were used to little fires that could easily be put to bed. See, fires in the Porter County Courthouse weren’t all that uncommon of an occurrence. Firefighters had been called to the building twice in the previous months, when a fan shorted out in the ceiling of the courtroom, and when a faulty light fixture ignited in the judge’s chambers. A local contractor offered to fix the building’s faulty wiring for free with the county only paying $500 for materials, but officials demurred.
But this wasn’t a light bulb or a fan- it was something else entirely: an inferno. Realizing the scope of the problem at the foot of the attic staircase, Valpo firefighters wisely escaped and regrouped in the streets below to figure out a new plan of attack. Everyone had long known that a major fire would devastate the courthouse. Its heavy timber girders, two feet thick and seventy-five feet long in places, wouldn’t be a match for any source of combustion. The state fire marshal’s office confirmed as much five years earlier when it condemned the building. Again, noncommittal officials did nothing to fix the issues at hand. I guess they’d hoped the danger would go away if they simply hid from it.
I suspect that this style of government will make a return once my generation of neurotic millennials comes into power. But even so, that inaction came back to bite officials in Porter County as overmatched Valparaiso firefighters stood down and called on departments in LaPorte and Gary –both twenty miles away- for assistance. Meanwhile, the heat, smoke, and flames were growing. Because the fire had spread through the building’s walls, attempts to shoot water through various windows weren’t helping, and firefighters had to get strategic. With help at hand, they ended up concentrating on the recorder’s office in the northeast corner of the first floor, managed to extinguish the flames, and saved the county records stored there.
But putting out a fire is an exhausting effort, and it’s even harder when the temperature is -12 degrees with a chilly gale that fanned the flames. Firefighters were dropping left and right, numb from exhaustion and cold. Despite their valiant efforts, they weren’t equipped to handle a blaze the size of a 16-story building, and neither was the city’s infrastructure. Insufficient water pressure kept the firefighters, along with multitudes of volunteers who stepped in to relieve them, from extinguishing any fire above the third floor. So the roof continued to burn unchecked as it made its way to the clock tower. All of the flotsam and jetsam stored in the tower over the years fell to the ground floor as it burned, and one firefighter swore he heard the gong of the bell as it dropped earthbound through the devastated timber floors4.
As the smoke cleared, residents of Valparaiso milled around the square in shock the next morning. The courthouse still stood, frozen and smoldering, as did the 168-foot-tall clock tower. But the damage was significant. So significant, that it took commissioners two years to finalize plans to build anew as they holed up in temporary offices in the building’s relatively-unaffected basement.
To that end, they hired our old friend, Courthouse Doctor Walter Scholar5, by now an expert on significant neoclassical renovations of old courthouses. The old building had been insured, bonds were floated, and Scholar would make use of what he could from the 1883 structure. Work commenced, and it was completed three years later in 1937.
Despite the description of The Munster Times, the new/old building no longer resembles a volcanic iceberg more than eighty years later. You wouldn’t necessarily know that there’d been a disastrous fire based on a cursory glance at the courthouse, and it appears to be in remarkably good shape and competitive among its neoclassical peers found around the state. The limestone structure extends three stories from a raised basement, and the primary north and south elevations feature flat porticos supported by six columns. The first two floors feature arched windows and terminate at a wide, stone cornice. The third story is slightly recessed, with rectangular windows that frame a central clock.
A closer inspection, however, reveals some telling signs that something big happened to the building. For starters, what good are the monumental porticos without a big set of limestone stairs to reach them? And why are the main entrances at the raised basement so underwhelming in comparison? Well, the old building did feature massive staircases leading to a main entrance on the first floor, but the renovation after the fire removed them. To replace the enormous stairs, smaller, more accessible entrances were carved into the basement6, creating a new first floor.
And what about that third story? It does look a little bit off, doesn’t it? For one, it’s smaller than the rest of the building, the square windows stand out from those of the lower stories, and that clock is clearly not from 1883. If you guessed that those components aren’t original, or if you cheated and looked at the postcard earlier, you’re right: the third floor and the projecting portion of the second level (just above the porticos) were added by Scholar to replace what had been lost in the fire. In the aftermath, it was clear that the tower had to go, along with the building’s hipped roof, statuary, and enormous arched windows that let light into the attic and originally alerted firefighters to the severity of the inferno. Finally, even they’re impossible to see from street level, trapezoidal roof panels not unlike those found on a mid-90s Pizza Hut cap the building instead of the old clock tower, hiding its modern HVAC equipment and probably an elevator shaft.
When I first started researching the reconstructed Porter County Courthouse in depth, I was shocked at how lame county officials were in not attempting to rectify the electrical issues with the courthouse that led to its destruction. I know how much politics can come into play but more importantly, I always want a historic courthouse to photograph and enjoy, which trumps my better judgment. Regardless, it hit me halfway through writing this that we still have a historic courthouse in Valpo- at least when viewed from the outside up to the second (now third) floor. In retrospect, 1934 trends a little early for an official vote to demolish an old courthouse, but at least county officials didn’t do so. And despite its extensive alterations, the Porter County Courthouse still stands proudly, almost eighty-four years after a fire nearly claimed it.
Built: 1885, decapitated 1934 after fire
Cost: $125,000 ($3.32 million in 2016)
Architect: John C. Cochrane
Style: Second Empire/Neoclassical
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3.5 stories; 168 feet, pre-1934.
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Enyart, David. “Porter County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. April 8, 2018.
2 “Courthouse Burned at Valparaiso” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] December 27,1934: 3. Print.
3 “Valpo Courthouse Burned” The Times [Munster] December 27, 1934: 1. Print.
4 “Courthouse Fire 40 Years Ago” The Vidette-Messenger [Valparaiso] December 27,1974: 9. Print.
5 “Looking Backward” ” The Vidette-Messenger [Valparaiso] May 23,1956: 9. Print.
6 Neeley, George E.; City of Valparaiso, A Pictorial History; G. Bradley Publishing, Inc.; St. Louis, Missouri; 1989