I’ve been doing my project to document every historic courthouse in Indiana for nearly seven years- 2,423 days, to be exact! It’s been harder than you’d think, progressing slowly in fits, stops, starts, and resets along the way. Friends who started the journey with me fell by the wayside only to be picked up at a later destination. Some never got picked up again at all. I burned through three of my own cars crisscrossing the state, and when those didn’t get the job done, I drove two that weren’t even mine at all. On the project alone, I spent the equivalent of six full days behind the wheel and drank nearly twenty gallons of diet soda.
Meanwhile, the courthouse landscape was changing. My brother joked that I’d been doing the project for so long that they were starting to build new courthouses! And he wasn’t that far off: Counties were repurposing old department stores and schools for use as government buildings, a modern building got rehabbed in Logansport, and a historic courthouse was connected to a modern annex in Lawrenceburg. Clock towers were being restored all over the place at what felt like an astonishing rate. And that brings us to our post here, today- recalling one of my favorite days on the road.
It was an interesting day. I’d been feeling burnt out and disenfranchised in my role as an account manager for a major student loan servicer and I decided to call in to work that morning. So instead of spending eight hours tethered to a desk and phone by an uncompromisingly taut headset cord, I found myself barreling down Highway 32 with my sister in tow. Our destination? An 1876 courthouse and its replacement clock tower. Designed and fabricated by Campbellsville Industries out of steel tubing and a .032″ thick aluminum veneer, the new, historically-accurate tower would restore a landmark lost for more than fifty years.
I wanted to see it, so there I was- rocketing across the state towards the county seat. I’d been following courthouse project’s progress with serious interest as county officials and preservationists batted plans back and forth, built awareness, and raised funds. Now, after years of work, the courthouse project was nearly complete. I was excited to get there- it felt like Christmas. As we got closer, I saw the new tower from way out of town. We reached downtown and I parked on the square in total awe. I’d seen the building before it was restored and it looked boring. Now, it looked incredible.
Now, I actually experienced that same day twice, going to two different places at two very different points in my project. The first time was among my very first trips to photograph the Randolph County Courthouse in Winchester as it underwent a $7.6 million renovation1. I know, I know- we’re here to talk about the Montgomery County Courthouse in Crawfordsville, but we have to get this out of the way first.
You can read more about the courthouse in Winchester here where we’ve covered it in great detail, but on September 30th, 2011 I saw an article in the local paper saying that the new clock tower had made it to town but that the installation had to be postponed due to high winds. I presumed the tower was sitting in stasis somewhere on the grounds, so I went to have a look for myself. Sure enough, there it was- the vertical portion of the tower was already atop the building, but the domed piece housing the clock was sitting right there in the square. Jackpot! The photo above is me standing in front of it. If the photo was bigger, you’d see the finial hooked up to a gigantic crane ready to hoist it 160 feet skyward to the top of the building once the wind died down. I had so much fun that the idea of taking photos of every courthouse in the state started to solidify in my head. I was going to do it.
So, I started! I made it to thirty counties until I stopped about a year later. I guess I was burnt out, and some other projects that were a little closer to home took up more of my time. But the weekend of July 17, 2015 took me to Turkey Run State Park. I passed through four county seats I hadn’t been to on the aborted project, and that inspired me to reset the “courthouse thing” (as I was then calling it), beginning from scratch, in order to finish what I’d started.
The first new county seat I went through on the way to Turkey Run was Crawfordsville in Montgomery County. I’d done enough research to know I was in for a big disappointment. I only caught a passing glimpse of the building, but it definitely met my expectations. The courthouse was sad. But by the time I made it back to take photos on March 14th of the following year, I knew a little more about it and was able to put the building in context.
The courthouse was built in 1876, designed by George Bunting as one of six he did in the state. In 1941, an artist commissioned to paint a portrait of downtown Crawfordsville noticed that the tower seemed to be leaning. It was wartime, and officials acted in haste by removing the tower, melting its bell down, and dumping the clockworks by the county’s highway barn. Although a local citizen rescued the components of the clock, restored them, and put them up at his jewelry store across the street1, the rest was history. The courthouse looked barren.
I recognized this in 2016, but Crawfordsville citizen Dr. James Kirtley saw it seventy-five years earlier. Kirtley -a prominent doctor who later became a state representative- had grown up eleven blocks away and enrolled at Wabash College down the road2. Peals from the tower’s bell reminded him when to be at class on campus, and the tower became both a visual and auditory landmark for the aspiring doctor. But when he returned from fighting in World War II, Kirtley saw that the clock tower was no more. The courthouse was naked, the stone base of the tower left to support only a piddly-looking air raid siren. He was heartbroken.
I got that feeling too, even if I didn’t know the building like Kirtley had. I was sad as I got home, started editing photos, and learned more about the building. It turned out that in 1996, the doctor started a fund to restore the building’s clock tower3, and he’d managed to raise $250,000 by 2000 when he succumbed to leukemia. Kirtley’s dying wish was to finish the project4, and his longtime friend Sandy Lofland-Brown took the reins of his efforts. By the time I Googled the courthouse that evening, the group had raised around $300,000, enough to pay for the restoration. However, a study indicated that the old building would require new structural members to support the tower, and the overall cost estimate was pushed out to half a million dollars. There was still work to do to finish the project.
Same here, by the way- Crawfordsville was only the fifty-ninth county out of ninety-two I’d been to, and some of the remaining buildings would be the hardest and farthest away- exotic locales like Evansville, Gary, South Bend, and Tell City. I soldiered on, finally making it to every county on Thanksgiving Day, 2017 after another pause in the project. A month earlier, Montgomery County officials had finally approved a contract to construct the new tower after 21-years of fundraising5. Soon, work to install the steel support beams began, and Campbellsville Industries began building the tower at their Kentucky facility. Once completed, it would be disassembled, packed up, and carefully driven up I-65 towards I-74 and Crawfordsville sometime that May.
I made it back to Crawfordsville by the time the pieces were sitting in the courthouse parking lot to try and echo the photo taken in Winchester. Unfortunately, I forgot my selfie stick, but anyway, there they were- three separate constructs: a 12,000 pound base with Corinthian columns and an arched Krinklglas window, a 10,000 pound segment with four five-foot clock faces, and a thousand pound finial segment with a flagpole6. With all the pieces together, the tower would rise eighty-six feet above the top of the building7. And it did- literally a day after I made it there. Severe storms were in the area, and I wasn’t able to secure three days off work in a row. Bummer.
So how’d they do? Well, here’s an old postcard I bought of the courthouse in its prime. As you can see, the present structure is pretty close, albeit simplified a little to better reflect missing details on the courthouse itself like the dormer windows that no longer exist along the building’s roof. Campbellsville gets an A+ in my book, and so do the county commissioners and clock tower committee who recognized the importance of investing in downtown- all thanks to Dr. Kirtley’s efforts more than twenty years ago.
Anyway, going to see it is when Sally and I experienced the same day twice. The Saturday after the clock tower was installed, we again made our way across Indiana Highway 32- this time in the opposite direction of Winchester. I was back working at the same place again, seven years later, and going through the same feelings of alienation I had when I was twenty. Traveling back down the same road, with the same person, to see an 1876 courthouse receive a new Campbellsville clock tower really brought the scope of the project together for me. It made me remember why I started doing this in the first place.
It also marked the unofficial end of the courthouse project. Sure, there are still tons of courthouses across the state to be written about, but I knew I wanted to bookend the project in May once the tower in Crawfordsville was installed. The similarities between its start and finish would be too great to ignore.
It’s been crazy how the past seven years have flown by- this project took up a quarter of my life! A lot’s changed over that time span, despite the two similar days. Yes, I still work for the same student loan servicer, but that’s by way of a four-year stop in corporate marketing and brief foray into real estate investment. Soon after I started the courthouse project I quit work to go back to school, then dropped out, re-enrolled, and dropped out again. I recently got accepted back in order to complete my bachelor’s degree for good.
That’s not all that’s happened. I’ve lost friends and loved ones over the past several years. People who I thought I couldn’t live without are gone. I’ve come to terms with some painful experiences from my past, and am still struggling with others. I’m locked into constant combat with my own wellbeing, and I’m battling addictions and illnesses that I’d liked to have wrapped up a long time ago. But my trajectory’s improving- at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself! I’ve made concrete progress, but it’s a relentless struggle. Through all of it, this courthouse project has been the stabilizing force on my life. It’s sad to see it end.
They say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Randolph and Montgomery county courthouse restorations, along with my own experiences documenting them and the rest of the state’s portfolio, demonstrate that cliché pretty clearly to me. Wrapping up the photo portion of this project feels like losing a friend, but I don’t think I’ll ever be totally done with it- Michigan and Ohio have courthouses too, after all, and the old Martin County Courthouse in Shoals is getting a refurbished bell tower of its own that I’ll need to take photos of. Zooming out, it’s clear that the last seven years have brought many changes, both to our state’s historic courthouses, to me, and probably to you as well. I’m excited to see where the next seven take us.
Montgomery County (pop. 38,177, 40/92)
Crawfordsville (pop. 15,995).
Built: 1876. Decapitated in 1941. Restored in 2018.
Cost: $150,000 ($3.27 million in 2016)
Architect: George W. Bunting
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 3/13/16, 5/16, 18, 5/19/18
1 “Danzebrink rebuilt courthouse’s clock” The Journal Review [Crawfordsville] May 11, 2018. Web. Retrieved from http://www.journalreview.com.
2 “Time running out on dying wish for Montgomery Co. Courthouse clock tower?” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette] July 26, 2017. Web. Retrieved from https://www.jconline.com
3 “Woman works to restore Crawfordsville clock tower” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette] March 14, 2016. Web. Retrieved from https://www.jconline.com
4 Clock tower committee reflects on more than 20 years of fundraising The Journal Review [Crawfordsville] May 19, 2018. Web. Retrieved from http://www.journalreview.com.
5 “Wind farm debate continues at commissioner meeting” The Journal Review [Crawfordsville] October 23, 2017. Web. Retrieved from http://www.journalreview.com.
6 “Promise kept: Courthouse clock tower, gone since WWII, returns in Crawfordsville” May 17, 2018. Web Retrieved from https://www.jconline.com
7 “Long awaited clock tower to make its way to Montgomery County courthouse” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette] May 7, 2018. Web. Retrieved from https://www.jconline.com