Right now, I’m up in northern Michigan celebrating the fiftieth year of my family’s ownership of our ninety acres of Missaukee County wilderness. The property, as we call it, is a spot I venture towards in order to camp out, connect with myself, and appreciate my family heritage. It’s a true source of pride for me- there, I feel the presence of my mom, my dad, my Uncle Joe, and my grandpa- everyone who no longer comes up. I love it, and we had a great time.
“Shideler Family Acres,” as its called under our newly-incorporated LLC, is nearly a six hour drive from Muncie through at least seven counties. All of them are in Michigan, obviously, and all of them have courthouses!
Obviously. You can bet I took photos of them all on the way up, and I’ll continue to on the way back home once I leave later today. But even if I’ve started to branch out into the Wolverine State for the photo portion of this project, we haven’t even finished talking about Indiana’s courthouses. So while I’m hanging out here in our neighbor to the north, what better courthouse to talk about than the one in Michigan City, Indiana?
The town’s close enough, right? Well, maybe not. Michigan City only touches Lake Michigan, but its perfect for this blog post. Incorporated in 1836, the community was founded under the jurisdiction of LaPorte County in the far northwestern part of Indiana, and it served as the terminus of The Michigan Road, an early Indiana highway that connected the town to Madison by way of Indianapolis1. Michigan City itself wasn’t on the way to much but as early as 1890, its population had eclipsed that of the county seat- LaPorte. Officials realized this, and decided to establish a satellite courthouse where all the people were. I must say that they made the right call: per the census, it only took Michigan City another twenty years to double LaPorte’s population! Established as the county’s superior courthouse and finished in 1909, the building continues to serve its original use more than a century later, though admittedly not its original constituents.
Found less frequently elsewhere across the state, these satellite courthouses are extremely common in the area known as the Region, probably due to the sheer amount of people that live there in proximity to Chicago. The five counties that make up the Region –Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Newton, and Porter- are home to 12% of Indiana’s total population2, and three of the counties have at least two superior courthouses to account for the population spread.
Now, everyone knows the difference between the Supreme Court and the regular county court- the Supreme Court has extra tomatoes and sour cream. But the difference between a county’s circuit and superior courts is a little bit more esoteric. I’m no expert and I hope someone gets on here and corrects me, but apparently the superior court is “superior” relative to lower courts with limited jurisdiction. Confusingly though, that differentiation has largely fallen by the wayside in modern times. Today, both circuit and superior courts enjoy general jurisdiction across all civil and criminal cases3. Again, please correct me if I’m wrong, but therefore, Michigan City’s courthouse stands ready to take on any case outside the capacity of LaPorte’s own county courthouse thirteen miles to the south.
The contemporary boundaries of each courthouse seem to have largely been influenced by practicality and geography, but the building intended to handle LaPorte County’s overflow was designed by prominent Fort Wayne architects Guy and Marshall Mahurin (the duo also designed Indiana’s DeKalb and Monroe county courthouses4). Standing a few blocks north of the downtown strip and a little bit off the beaten trail, the Michigan City courthouse isn’t really that tall, but its surroundings are even shorter. This discrepancy amplifies its presence: a modern post office flanks the building’s southwest side, and an ever newer library branch sits across the street to the northeast.
The bulk of the courthouse is rectangular, although a slightly shorter wing juts out to the side facing the library. Entry is via modern double doors at the center of the building’s primary entrance bay, as well as a nearby stairwell down to the basement. The main doors are capped by a triangular pediment at the first floor. A large, recessed window with an unfortunate infill panel above the entrance is flanked by a pair of two-story Ionic pillars which form a portico. The entire central entrance projection reaches its full height by way of a massive pediment that features carvings of a scroll and two guardians that keep watch over Michigan City’s business district.
From the outside, the first floor of the courthouse emphasizes horizontal lines through the channeled coursework of its limestone foundation- lines that are broken up by recessed, rectangular windows. Projecting pilasters span the building’s second and third stories and divvy up the majority of the building’s other windows which, regrettably, appear to be contemporary replacements. The secondary faces of the courthouse are five bays wide, feature simplified versions of the same motifs found on its northeastern side, and are topped with round, louvered openings framed by the courthouse’s cross-gabled roof. The overall aesthetic effect is one of strength, stamina, and utility.
But not as a milestone! Although it’s less imposing than many courthouses across Indiana, the building’s visuals turn out to be enough for a courthouse in a community of prominent landmarks- and Michigan City has several. First is the pastoral 1904 Michigan City Breakwater lighthouse, the city’s so-called crown jewel5 that still serves as a navigational aid to ships traversing the Great Lakes. Another is the 280-foot-tall Blue Chip Casino, a modern, glass curtain-wall structure that stands as the tallest building on Lake Michigan outside of Chicago and Milwaukee6. That’s a big deal for a community of only 31,000!
The city also features its own zoo and premium outlet mall, but undoubtedly the most obvious landmark is the enormous hyperboloid cooling tower of the NIPSCO-owned Michigan City Generating Station. A coal and natural gas-fired power plant that came online in 1930, it’s often mistaken for a nuclear plant. The monumental tower sits on the former site of the Hoosier Slide7, a nearly two-hundred-foot-tall sand dune evaporated by the late 1920s after its silica was pilfered and sent down to Muncie to manufacture Ball jars. I didn’t take pictures of any of those sights, but above are a few of my old fruit jars made from that very glass- pieces of Michigan City’s history, right in my living room. Traces of iron in the sand there gave the old glass its distinctive blue tint.
Frankly, the LaPorte County Superior Courthouse doesn’t come close to ranking among Michigan City’s most visible landmarks. At first sight, you wouldn’t necessarily think the building was even a courthouse, aside for its stature compared to the streetscape that surrounds it. To me, it looks more like a typical county library or post office- ironic, since it looks nothing like either of those buildings located just across the road. But it’s possible that all that may change in the near future.
Whether the courthouse will emerge from pending renovations looking like a bigger version of its current self or like one of its modern neighbors remains to be seen: A few months ago, the LaPorte County Council gave their final approval to a project that intends to double the building’s size, similar to the treatment that the other courthouse in LaPorte received in 2004. The $21 million plan will allow the courthouse to absorb county offices located elsewhere downtown, as well as provide much-needed ADA access to the structure8. The project will also fix outmoded wiring that officials consider a major fire hazard.
Whatever aesthetic results the building’s renovation brings, here’s hoping that officials get a jump on it soon. We’ve seen what faulty wiring can do to a courthouse just twenty miles away in Valparaiso, and I’d hate to see history repeat itself here. But features like the building’s strange, L-shaped layout and asymmetrical stance on the square should lend themselves well to a historically-sympathetic expansion, and I expect that the new structure will serve for a long time.
I’m excited to see what will happen, but a little nervous- the Region already lost a historic superior courthouse when Lake County’s Richardson Romanesque building in Hammond was demolished in 1974 to make way for a parking lot. As I sit here at the property -one cigarette away from packing up and miles away from any parking lot- I’ll give the old courthouse another good thought and wish for its continued use for years to come. LaPorte County residents deserve it, and so do fans of our historic courthouses in general.
LaPorte County (pop.111,467, 15/92
Michigan City (pop. 31,494).
Architect: Mahurin & Mahurin
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use- Some courts
1 “Experience fun and history across Indiana on the Michigan Road!” The Historic Michigan Road. Historic Michigan Road Association. 2018. Web. Retrieved 4/23/18.
2 “Population Estimates for Indiana Counties, 2010-2015” Stats Indiana. Kelley School of Business. 1985-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/23/18.
3 “Indiana Trial Courts: Types of Courts” Indiana Judicial Branch. State of Indiana. 2018. Web. Retrieved 4/23/18.
4 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. April 23, 2018.
5 Richards, Rick A. Michigan City’s Love Affair With It’s (sic) Lighthouse July, 2009, Lighthouse Digest. Print.
6 “Blue Chip Casino Spa Blu Tower” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2000-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/23/18.
7 Dow, Marianne. “Ball Blue and the Hoosier Slide” Collectors Weekly. 2007–2018 Auctions Online USA Ltd. Web. Retrieved 4/23/18.
8 “Michigan City Courthouse to expand” February 28, 2018. The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. Web. Retrieved 4/23/18.