Here’s a little bit of trivia. What Indiana county was the most recent to demolish a historic courthouse? Did you guess Logansport? Well, you’d be wrong. It’s Cass County- Logansport’s not a county. It is the Cass County seat though, so I’ll give you half-credit just for playing.
Before you can demolish a historic courthouse though, you’ve got to have a historic courthouse. And before you have a historic courthouse, you’ve got to have a county. Cass County has a pretty straightforward history. Unlike others that relocated county seats every time the wind blew a different way, things were different here- Logansport was always home to the seat of government. In 1836, eight years after the county was organized, officials began to get serious about forming a center of government, soliciting proposals for a courthouse. Joseph Willis was paid $30 for his plans, and after multiple delays, a 50×70 foot stone building featuring two stories and a basement was completed in 1844. Topped with a cupola, bell tower, and spire, the final cost was $16,392.861 for a building apparently considered one of the finest in the state (even though all local histories say that, I think). If there’s a photo of it, I can’t find a copy.
New courthouse in tow, Logansport was set to boom. Not only did it sit strategically at the confluence of the Wabash and Eel rivers, but the Wabash and Erie Canal had come through town a year after the courthouse was planned. So did the Michigan Road, an early superhighway that connected Michigan City to Madison by way of Indianapolis. Some estimates state that as many as half of the pioneers who settled in northern Indiana did so via the Michigan Road2, and many stayed in Cass County. By the late 1880s, the community’s population had increased fivefold over the past fifty years3, and a new courthouse was needed.
The original plan was, as is common, to knock the old courthouse down and build a new one on its site. However, a last-minute lobby by county attorneys who praised the acoustics of the old courtroom led commissioners to leave it standing and simply add on to the building’s front, bringing it up to the street according to plans from Chicago architect John S. McKean. The courthouse addition, completed in 1888, is what we see in the postcard above. A tiny bit of the original courthouse can be seen poking out to the right.
Though old courthouse are often great architectural statements and icons of their communities, they’re often not the easiest structures to maintain. It’s hard to keep an ornate old building in good repair- especially with regards to its clock tower, rooflines, and chimneys. Logansport’s was altered substantially in 1953 with the removal of ornamental ironwork and chimneys, along with clock tower surgery that flattened its peak and removed most of its ornamentation.
In my experience, old buildings with tons of additions are often the most convoluted to navigate. My high school, built in 1929, was an annoying mishmash of drop ceilings, infills, and ramps that destroyed its historic interior and made getting to class on time a constant test of spatial intelligence. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that this is what led Cass County officials to build a new courthouse -the present structure- in 1979. Unfortunately, the new construction wasn’t intended to simply augment its elderly predecessor. Instead of leaving Logansport with a historic courthouse and an adjacent modern annex, residents received a modern judicial center built 19 feet to the west of its historic courthouse4, along with a parking lot where it once stood.
But not all of the old courthouse was destroyed, as a courthouse salvage and beautification committee formed once commissioners made up their minds to tear the building down. The courthouse clock was saved and installed in a small tower adjacent to the parking lot where the old building stood. Additionally, two paintings by Wils Berry -including the largest painting of Abraham Lincoln in existence at the time5– were saved for installation in the new courthouse. And while the demolition company struggled with the removal of the 3×3 foot stone slabs that formed the walls of the 1844 section of the courthouse, they did manage to save the building’s 1888 cornerstone, set aside to be installed in the new clock tower6. Most all of our modern courthouses contain some historic artifacts from their predecessors, and Logansport’s is no different.
The current Cass County Courthouse (officially the Cass County Government Center) may well be the least inspired one in the state. A four-story building of mostly brick but also stucco paneling, the structure looks more like a hospital, especially given the small garage poking out of its southeast corner that could feasibly hold an ambulance. Upon arriving at the building’s Fourth Street entrance, the total lack of ornamentation led me to believe I was looking “backstage” at the courthouse’s rear entrance. Then I discovered the clock tower nearby- nope! This was it.
A trip around the building confirmed that the east side was the building’s best side. The lawn at the building’s west entrance was so stuffed with haggard trees that it was nearly impossible to see the ornamental cannon and bell that sat on the grounds, much less the courthouse itself. I quickly took my photos and made my way to Monticello for more courthousery.
In October, 2015 -just months after I’d visited- work began on a $4.3 million project to renovate the exterior of the courthouse7. Apparently, faulty paneling on the building’s exterior had caused water to infiltrate and damage its interior. A roof replacement was ordered, as was a clock transplant- the 1889 faces on the freestanding tower would be added onto the building’s new parapet. The dead trees on the building’s west side would be cut down, the sheriff’s security garage would be finished and used as a community room, and a new vestibule would help congestion while entering the courthouse from the east7.
The changes made a huge difference in my perception of the structure. The new paneling seems to streamline the building, and light ornamental touches like the recurring diamond motif along the building’s roofline add to its overall cohesion. Whether the clocks look natural is debatable, but at least they’re back in a position of prominence. Mostly, though, I was surprised to see how much of an impact clearing the trees out of the building’s west lawn had. Third Street is one of the community’s most prominent routes, and it’s important for any county seat to establish a visible government presence. While the Cass County Government Building is a far cry from historic courthouses that tower over their surroundings and gobble up positions of prominence downtown, the landscaping efforts and roof additions provide a monumental appearance as best as could probably be grafted onto the uninspired building. Next time I drive through Logansport, I’ll be sure to notice it.
I keep calling the Cass County courthouse uninspired, but I’ve had enough time to contemplate it that I may be changing my mind, at least partially. I can’t fault the community for building something dramatically different than what they had in response to their changing needs, and I definitely can’t fault them for recognizing how ugly what they built was and renovating it to try and match the gravitas a courthouse should provide. Is it one of my favorites? No. Is it historic? Well, not exactly. But it is an Indiana county courthouse that needed documented. Next time, we’ll look and see what might have happened if Cass County had stuck with and adapted their old building through a quick trip to Connersville.
Cass County (pop. 37,994, 38/92)
Lagrange (pop. 17.755).
Cost: $1.7-$3.5 million ($6-$12 million in 2018)
Architect: Richard Byers
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 4 stories
Current use: county offices and courts
Photographed 8/22/15 and 6/1/18
1 Enyart, David. “Cass County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. December 16, 2018.
2 Esarey, Logan (1915). A History of Indiana. W.K. Stewart Co. Louisville.
3 “U.S. Decennial Census”. United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on April 22, 2013. Web. December 16, 2018.
4 “Old Courthouse To Be Razed In June For New Parking Lot” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport] March 25 1979: 1. Print.
5 “Courthouse Clock To Be In Parking Lot” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport] November 6 1978: 1. Print.
6 “Stone Date Being Saved” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport] August 28 1979: 2. Print.
7 Kirk, Michael. “Rolling out changes: Repairs continue at Cass County Government Building.” The Pharos-Tribune [Logansport]. October 31, 2015.
8 “Renovations underway at Cass County Government Building.” Cass County Online. Existential Media, LLC 2018. Web. December 16, 2018.