It’s no secret that Indiana has an embarrassment of impressive county courthouses, and most of the best have stood for more than a century. But there was one structure that so dominated its surrounding square that county officials decided to tone it down for the sake of the city’s skyline. Trust me- this was not a common frame of mind during the Indiana courthouse building boom. Let’s travel up north to Goshen to take a closer look at the building that bucked the trend, as well as its unique surroundings.
But on the way there, let’s make a stop at my childhood, around 1996 or 1997. When I was a kid, Elkhart County’s courthouse in Goshen stood out as the backdrop to many memories at my dad’s house. He moved up to the area a few years after my parents got divorced, and I remember talking on the phone with him shortly after he got a job at the local musical instrument conglomerate Conn-Selmer. I was six years old, and I delighted in the humor of repeating the city’s name back to him as any number of rhyming utterances.
The pinnacle of humor it was not and the moment was over, but I’d had my fun. Later on that phone call, I remember putting the landline receiver next to a piece of paper in an effort to show dad a drawing I’d done. I wasn’t smart- my sense of humor reflected that.
Idiocy aside, once I established that dad lived in Goshen and not an elixir, sea, or salve, we started visiting him every other weekend. It was usually dark by the time we’d make it up to Elkhart County, and the lighted clock of the courthouse would greet us like a benevolent cyclops beckoning to the safety of his house. But despite all that, I never made it up to Goshen when I started my courthouse project in 2011. I guess I took the old building for granted, and my dad’s death was still fresh in my mind four months later. It felt like it was too soon to go back up there for fun knowing that any hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint I stopped at would be a stop alone.
But I eventually got over it, and Elkhart County was my fifth stop when I rebooted the project in 2015. I started to research the courthouse- J.H. Barrows & George O. Garnsey designed the original building, and completed it in 18711. The courthouse originally measured 82 feet long by 72 feet wide and featured a gargantuan clock tower on its south side, giving it an asymmetrical layout that was partially balanced by a smaller cupola and flagpole positioned on the other side of the building’s roof. The main entrances to the courthouse (on its east and west fronts) featured monumental stairs that led to a classical portico consisting of freestanding Corinthian columns that measured fifty-two feet tall. The brick building, Italianate in nature, featured stone quoins and rustication that culminated in a low-hipped roof hidden by a large balustrade. As constructed, it was a landmark in Goshen for more than thirty years: local officials described the courthouse as “imposing in appearance, chaste in design, massive and of great strength and delicacy of finish..with the clock tower adding greatly to the appearance2.”
But architectural preferences changed. By 1905, the courthouse was looking downright antiquated in comparison to newer, Georgian Revival structures with symmetrical designs popping up around the state3. The clock tower, once revered, was now considered “oppressively imposing4” and was deleted as part of architects Patton & Miller’s expansion of the building that year. A more considerate tower featuring a clay dome was erected in its place at the center of the courthouse, while two new wings were constructed on the building’s north and south ends that each added 10,000 square feet of additional space.
Although the building was shortened, it’s still imposing at an impressive 134-feet tall. And you wouldn’t know its convoluted architectural history by looking at it, unlike courthouses in Lawrence, Benton, or Porter counties that saw extensive renovations that left them just not seeming quite right. No, the Elkhart County Courthouse seems to have successfully made the transition between two disparate styles, but it’s possible that I’d have a more critical eye if I hadn’t grown up nearby and seen it so often. You be the judge.
What’s easier to judge is the modern Elkhart County Superior Courthouse in downtown Elkhart. Information’s hard to come by, but judging from land improvement records, I believe it was built in 1970. The building sits on the former site of Elkhart High School and a 1993 expansion incorporated part of its facade into the courthouse. Despite the historic elements retained from the school, the building is ugly. Hideous, even. Across the street is the classically-inspired Elkhart Municipal Building, which held the superior court until the modern building’s construction.
If you’re a fan of architecture, it’s worth taking a trip to Goshen. Forget Elkhart! The historic courthouse is one of the state’s best and Goshen’s downtown is picturesque. Almost as interesting as the courthouse itself is the square it sits on, an enormous park filled with interesting memorabilia. I love the natural setting, but the foliage was imposing- it obscured the courthouse enough that I had to go back during the winter to get the photos I needed.
When I was there both times, two things stuck out to me the most. The first is the grounds’ ornate Neptune fountain, a gift from a local Greek immigrant named James Polezoes who opened up a confectionary and soda fountain across the street during the early 1900s. Polezoes, who was twenty-five by the time he’d saved up $1,400 (about $36,000 today) to start a second business, decided to thank the city that had enabled his success instead, donating the fountain as a memorial to Goshen’s generosity as well as his heritage.
2,000 residents -nearly a quarter of the city’s population- showed up at the fountain’s dedication on August 20, 19125. It was a stock design, one of several similar statues created by different vendors, but the fountain’s a sight to behold when the water’s on. It springs from the nostrils of sea creatures at Neptune’s feet in order to create a majestic, if incongruous, memorial to Goshen’s welcoming arms.
When the water isn’t running, though, you’ve got to look elsewhere for interesting sights on the courthouse square. One is extremely easy to find- the famous Goshen police booth, which sits at the southeastern corner of the city square.
Octagonal in shape, the tiny building stands at the convergence of Lincoln Avenue and Main Street. Back in 1939, three banks made their homes at the corner, and paranoia of a major robbery was rampant. Even though John Dillinger had been killed four years earlier, the city was still worried, and officials received approval for WPA funds to build what was called a “municipal police control station” on the site, contributing an additional $1,500 to the project themselves6.
Needless to say, the bank robberies never happened. For more than forty years, the structure was underutilized as a police telephone center, location for a siren to announce oncoming ambulances, and as a headquarters for the city’s legions of meter maids. Finally, the building was given to the Goshen Historical Society in 1983. Today, the refurbished structure also serves as a monument of sorts, although one entirely different than the Neptune fountain.
The Elkhart County Courthouse still towers over both of its counterparts on the square as a silent sentinel to the city’s changing scene, as well as the traffic routed past it on US-33 or IN-15. Well, I guess the building’s not such a passive observer. The clock tower and bell mechanism, which is accurate within one minute per month, still peals to denote each passing hour. Caring for the clock is Blake Eckelbarger, the third-generation of Eckelbarger to maintain the apparatus after his great-grandfather and grandpa did for nearly seventy years7. He checks the timing of the clock with the GPS of his phone, a method that I’m pretty sure wasn’t used by his forebears.
I often think about the important roles courthouses play in peoples’ lives as I write this blog. For many, courthouses are a utility- somewhere to pay your taxes or see your day in court. For some, courthouses provide the setting to good memories, and for many more, they’re the backdrop to bad ones. The architecture of or history behind the building isn’t relevant. But stories like those of James Polezoes, the police booth, and the Eckelbargers are the kind of human-interest anecdotes I can appreciate about our state’s courthouses. I’d imagine that none of them bear even a passing thought for most of the people who find themselves inside.
As far as my own life, I was taught how to drive and pump gas in front of the Elkhart County Courthouse. I found out how to have a snowball fight at a stopped train. I also learned how to try and process personal loss as we drove home after dad died and I found myself there again for this project. These memories aren’t typical courthouse experiences, and I’ve been lucky to circumvent all of those so far. But they’re part of what drew me to document the buildings to begin with.
Elkhart County (pop. 197,559, 6/92)
Goshen (pop. 31,719)
Built: 1870, remodeled 1905
Cost: $100,000 ($2.66 million in 2016)
Architect: Patton & Miller
Style: Neoclassical/Italian Renaissance
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 134 feet
Current Use: County offices and some courts
Photographed: 8/15/15 and 2/18/18
1 Bartholomew, H.S.K. Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana. Goshen. The Goshen Printing Company, 1930. Print.
2 Bartholomew, H.S.K. Sketches and Stories of Elkhart County, Indiana. Nappanee. E. V. Publishing House, 1936. Print.
3 Whiffen, Marcus. American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles. Cambridge. The MIT Press, 1969. Print.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Elkhart County Courthouse, Goshen, Elkhart County, Indiana, National Register # 80000034.
5 “The Neptune Fountain of Goshen, Indiana” The National Herald. The National Herald, Inc. April 11, 2017. Web. Retrieved from http://www.thenationalherald.com.
6 “History of the Police Booth…” Goshen Police Booth. Goshen Historical Society: 2018. Web. Retrieved from http://goshenhistorical.org.
7 “Goshen man third generation caring for courthouse clock” The Indiana Lawyer. Indiana Business Journal: December 27, 2017. Web. Retrieved from http://www.theindianalawyer.com.