Although the 1839 Greene County Courthouse in Bloomfield was demolished more than 135 years ago, its cupola has been used as a lawn ornament in town ever since1. Strange, huh?
But that’s what my source said, and it was plain as day- LAWN ORNAMENT. A lot of courthouses across the state have been decapitated (like those found here and here as well as some we’ll talk about in the near future), but we’re usually stuck with the building left over, not the tower. I’d been totally unaware of this specimen when I missed the cupola at Bloomfield earlier that same day. It had been a long drive down to Greene County through miles of Indianapolis suburbia and tedious I-69 construction, and I wasn’t enamored with the prospect of going back once I found out about it.
But I’d seen the structure referenced online without an image and I wasn’t content to let it slip by. If that mention had been enough to make me want to get back down to Bloomfield so I could see what the cupola looked like, it’d surely be enough for someone else. I wanted to save them the trouble- I wanted my project to be the project I could have referenced in order to not have to do my courthouse project!
I wasn’t used to missing the kind of detritus provided by this cupola during my endeavor. Sure, the trips were relatively opportunistic and scheduling was slipshod, but I’d done a pretty good job, I thought, of being conclusive and documenting every historic courthouse in the state. But clearly, I’d been wrong: I fired up Google to attempt to find some more information on the cupola/lawn ornament, typing in “Bloomfield courthouse cupola” in the search bar.
Easy-peasy. The first thing that popped up was an expired real estate listing for a house that, among other things, featured a “detached 2 car garage and cupola from the 1843 Greene County Court House2.” Courthouse confirmed! Well, the cupola at least, even though the date was incorrect. I’d have to go back and take pictures of it. Thankfully, now I had an address and, by extension, directions.
Unfortunately, it looked like it was going to be a while before I could make it down there again. My car was aging fast, getting up there in mileage, and it was no longer the reliable stud it once had been. Band-aid fixes were increasingly becoming more expensive, intricate, and closer to all-out surgery, so the trip would have to wait until I got it under control.
But the sabbatical from the project gave me more than enough time to research the old Greene County Courthouse. The first courthouse in Bloomfield was built in 1825 out of logs. Only nine years later, in 1834, county officials ordered the courthouse’s foundation be repaired “so as to prevent the hogs from disturbing the court or any other public business3” Apparently it wasn’t uncommon for wild animals to roam around the newly-established county seats of early Indiana. Some would argue that, with pigs wrecking the courthouse, not a whole lot’s changed in the past 184 years! Heh.
But wildlife was enough of a problem in early Indiana to convince Greene County officials to build something else. By 1835, county commissioners decided to build another courthouse in Bloomfield, appointing a five-member committee to draft the plans. The team advised that a new courthouse would cost $5,157 (close to $124,000 today) and selected a contractor, Calvin B. Hartwell, to construct it. All was well and good until he skipped town once he got his first payment. His unsuspecting guarantors were forced to finish the project. But it wouldn’t be even that easy- the county defaulted on the contract and work nearly stopped until a local bank lent them the money to proceed. The courthouse was finally finished in 1839, at a total cost of $6,271.59- a 21% cost overrun.
A brick building, the courthouse was 50 feet square and 28 feet high, not counting an octagonal cupola, belfry, and spire. The first floor was divided by a hallway with three rooms on each side. The second story contained a court room and two rooms for the jury. The structure probably appeared very similar to the 1822 Perry County Courthouse in Rome, or the Wilimington’s 1836 Dearborn County Courthouse, and it sat on a courthouse square along with a flowing well, the likes of which we’ll talk about in a few days.
The structure served admirably by all accounts until the 1880s, when Greene County got caught up in the courthouse building boom that swept the region. As the old building was being demolished to make way for George Bunting’s 1886 Romanesque courthouse, the project contractor bought the old courthouse’s materials for $396**, selling the cupola to a local citizen who sat it in his side yard to act as a playhouse for his kids. That’s a funny thought, but there it’s sat for more than 130 years in the side yard of that enormous old house on Seminary Street, “The Hilltop”. Along with that detached, two-car garage in the real-estate listing.
It took me nearly two years to make it back after a succession of life changes that derailed this project, but I stopped in Bloomfield on my penultimate trip to finish the project- a 550-mile drive that lasted more than eleven hours. First, I stopped at the courthouse to take more pictures and adjust the camera settings. Then I headed out of downtown towards “The Hilltop.”
The house was pretty easy to find, and there the cupola was- partially obscured by some trees in the side yard, situated about two yards higher than the street. I started ambling up the hill, but the bashful cupola had an array of botanical bodyguards at the ready to stop my paparazzi progress. Thwack! I got hit in the face by a –thwack- series of branches, knocking me off my feet. But I soldiered on up the steep grade; made it to level ground without any bushes, trees, or shrubs; and got the photos I needed. Trying to remain discreet since I was shooting a private residence, I hopped back in the car and drove off to the next courthouse of the day, neglecting to photograph the freestanding garage so amplified in the old real estate listing.
Reflecting on the structure while continuing to pick out odd little burrs from my pants and cardigan a hundred miles away in Evansville, it blew my mind that local preservationists hadn’t been all over that old cupola. Caretakers of the adjacent house –which, despite its evident stateliness, seems to have been carved up into rentals over the years- definitely deserve credit for maintaining it. But the cupola has clearly seen better days and looked to be full of junk or trash when I was there: it was used as a shed by the time I photographed it. I’d have killed for a courthouse playhouse as a kid, and I’m surprised that officials never made an offer to relocate the structure downtown and position it in a place of prominence. Several counties I’ve been to have done something similar, though not with structures quite this old.
But Bloomfield was as sleepy as I was that Saturday morning, and it didn’t look to be thriving. Maybe the funds just aren’t there. The thought occurred to me that by this point, the cupola has been standing off to the side of that 1824-era house on the hilltop for nearly three times as long as it graced the courthouse square, and I’m sure it’s better known to locals for its status as a quirky lawn ornament than as a greater part of the county’s history. Maybe then, all said, it’s best to leave it there. But, at least on this blog, it stands as a recollection of Bloomfield’s past.
Greene County (pop. 141,888, 51/92)
Bloomfield (pop. 82,575)
Cost: $6,271.59 ($146,542 in 2016)
Architect: Calvin B. Hartwell/Andrew Downing
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: ~15 feet
Current Use: Lawn ornamentation
1 Enyart, David. “Greene County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 20, 2018.
2 “412 S Seminary St, Bloomfield, IN 47424” Public. Zillow, 2017. Web. March 27, 2016.
3 History of Green & Sullivan Counties. Goodspeed Bros. & Co. Chicago. 1884.
4 Ramsey, Maxine “Spirit of ’76, The Building of A Court House”, The Boomfield News [Bloomfield]. 1976. Print.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Greene County Courthouse, Bloomfield, Greene County, Indiana, National Register # 80000047.