Take a look at this building. Have you seen any like it before? And before you say so, no, the photo you clicked on to get here doesn’t count. The Clark County Courthouse in Jeffersonville is a striking structure. So striking, perhaps, that it almost seems crazy for a government building here in little old Wonder-Bread-and-Apple-Pie Indiana. Our modern courthouses generally lean towards the side of conservatism, but this one bucks that trend.
Fans of courthouse architecture tend to lump modern courthouses into one class, but there are actually a few subcategories worth mentioning. Courthouses in Muncie and Monticello are Brutalist. New Albany and Indianapolis are home to courthouses that reside firmly in the Mid-Century Modern mode of architecture. Others- well, you’re right, they’re just modern and there’s no better way to put it. Clark County’s is different, though. It’s our state’s only New Formalist courthouse.
New Formalism? What’s that, you say? Well, it blossomed as architects began to reject the rigid guidelines of the grid-based Modernism, and it represents an attempt to combine classical building elements with new forms enabled by advances in technology1. Common features included stylized versions of traditional features like columns, arches, and colonnades; along with an emphasis of scale and proportion. And that’s where the ‘new’ portion of the name comes in- concrete and engineered composites allowed for innovative variants on those classical tropes, and the style rose to the forefront in the fifties2. It really took off in the late 1960s, just as the Clark County Courthouse was being built.
I know you’ve seen it before, even though New Formalist buildings aren’t that common around these parts. The best example here in Muncie (and it is a lame example) is probably the old A.E. Boyce building downtown, now home to some insurance underwriter. The style’s much more common around the country, though- the Hawaiian State Capitol in Honolulu is New Formalist, as are the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of those since I’m perfectly content to keep the scope of this project solidly within Hoosier boundaries (that’s a lie – Ed.). But trust me. The buildings are related.
A deeper dive leads me to conclude that we see these types of buildings more often than we think across Indiana, just not within the scope of our courthouse portfolio. New Formalist buildings exist all over our day-to-day routines, and they’re perhaps nowhere more prominent than in our shopping malls. Now, I’m not talking about our froufrou new power centers, mind you, as seen in those contemporary developments haphazardly filling in the cracks of Hamilton County. I’m talking about our real, honest-to-goodness, old enclosed malls, the ones you went to as a kid. Above is an exterior shot of the former L.S. Ayres at Washington Square on Indy’s east side. See what I mean?
I like dead malls, dying malls, and even thriving malls, although I haven’t been inside one for any good reason in the past decade. Regardless, it’s telling that despite the prominence of New Formalism in cultural, financial, and governmental centers across the country, most of Indiana’s best examples are in only found in places that we shop- or used to, at least. That’s not at all to say that there aren’t more prominent specimens of the style around our state! But just like Phil Hartman’s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, my primitive mind can’t grasp those concepts. I know what I know.
Take a look at the above photo of the Sears at Fort Wayne’s Glenbrook Square and see how the influences jump out. There’s the colonnade- New Formalism in the flesh! There are TONS of other malls across the state with anchor stores that have similar styling cues. I know that no one goes to Sears anymore, but nevertheless, the architecture is there to appreciate from afar, just as it is in the Clark County Courthouse.
I could go on and on and on all day about malls, but we’re here to talk courthouses. So let’s get back to that- there’s actually some really interesting history there in Clark County!
The county was Indiana’s second, and it predates the founding of the state by fourteen years. Back in 1802, the Ohio River was the place to be and the land surrounding the county’s first community, Clarksville, was given to the State of Virginia by virtue of an Indian treaty3. The state then awarded the land to the men who joined George Rogers Clark’s battalion during the Revolutionary War, and a county seat was soon established. The first courthouse erected in Jeffersonville was a frame building that served only ten years before being superseded by a brick structure located slightly upriver in Charlestown.
After sixty-five years, the county seat moved back to Jeffersonville and a new courthouse was erected after $30,000 had been collected for that very purpose. Located where the current building stands and occupied by October of 1878, the structure was two stories tall, featuring an exposed limestone foundation. Brick walls supplanted that first floor and rose past tall, rectangular windows to a heavy cornice and hipped roof. Although the courthouse originally featured a cupola with an oval dome and impressive steeple, it was removed sometime before the building was demolished and replaced with the square lantern visible in the old postcard above.
I have no doubt that if the old courthouse existed today it would be among Indiana’s most underwhelming. County commissioners may have thought the same thing when they hired architects Wright, Porteous & Lowe to design a new building nearly a hundred years after it had first been built. Per the Census, by 1970 (when the current courthouse was completed), the county had grown 56% over the previous twenty years. Just we’ve seen before, the venerable old courthouse was probably just too small5. It’s hard for a historic courthouse to keep up its usefulness over the course of a century.
Nevertheless, the majority of counties elsewhere across the state were able to keep their old buildings in commission, but they didn’t have the disadvantage of being right across the river from Louisville, Kentucky- the country’s 31st largest city6. Regardless of its size, Louisville had shriveled by nearly 30,000 people in the years leading up to the demolition of the aging courthouse. I’d be willing to wager that most of those people moved across the creek to Indiana, and officials in Clark County needed a way to accommodate them all in short order.
The building that they settled on definitely did that, and continues to- it sprawls across an entire city block. From the front, the colonnaded portion I photographed rises three floors to the southwest. A single-story lobby connects the courthouse to the Clark County Jail located on the other side of the square. The lock-up extends to the northwestern side of the block, where it attaches to more modern court and office facilities that round out the northern half of the square and form a U-shape that frames a central, concrete courtyard. The complex is large, intimidating, and for the most part, unadorned.
Even though the additions are pretty boring, we still have the main part of the courthouse to admire. Not only do those towering, open arches bring to mind the classic Greek or Roman architecture that they reference, but I’ll be damned if they don’t reference those mall anchors I spent hours and hours at as a kid waiting for my mom! Here’s an example at the recently-shuttered Mounds Mall in Anderson. This Carson’s, originally built as an H.P. Wasson in 1964, implies an arched colonnade, but the heavy materials and symmetry are dead ringers for New Formalism. It’s more muted than the examples found in malls elsewhere around the state, but the influence is still there, and it’s hard to deny.
To my eye, the very elements that New Formalism brings to the forefront are the features that modern courthouses often seem to lack. You might think that the Clark County Courthouse doesn’t have a lot to offer compared to structures like Hartford City’s Richardsonian Romanesque masterpiece or the Second Empire treasure in Noblesville. But I’ve always been a contrarian, and I disagree. I love New Formalism! Anything that contemporizes classic tropes but still preserves a sense of majesty is okay in my book, and I guess that’s what draws me to the Clark County Courthouse. It’s a totally unique building among our state’s collection, and one that should be appreciated while it’s still here. Just like our old malls.
Clark County (pop. 112,938, 16/92)
Jeffersonville ( pop. 45,929)
Cost: $5.2 million ($32.07 million in 2016)
Architect: Wright, Porteous, & Lowe
Style: New Formalist
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: City/county offices and courts
1 “New Formalism” Architectural Style Guide. Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, 2018. Web. April 14, 2018.
2 “ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN OF THE MUSIC CENTER” About the Music Center. 50 The Music Center. 2014. Web. April 14, 2018.
3 “Clark County, Indiana Genealogical Records Information”. Archived from the original on 2008-01-21
4 “JEFFERSONVILLE – COUNTY SEAT OF CLARK COUNTY” Jeffersonville History. Clark County Government. Web. April 14, 2018.
5 “Clark County Government – History”. Wayback.archive.org. 2013-03-19. Archived from the original on March 19, 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-19.
6 “Louisville’s population ranks 31st in U.S.” Insurance. Louisville Business First. Web. April 14, 2018.