I started posting again last week after a long hiatus, and I talked about what can happen when changes occur- first within the context of this blog, where I introduced some new rules that I think will help me clamp down on its focus. Changes were more paramount, though, in the case of Cass County, where where the seductive but misguided notion that any change must be a good one translated, in practice, to the demolition of a historic courthouse originally built in 1844.
Even if it was desperately needed, the 1979 destruction of Indiana’s oldest courthouse in continuous use remains the most recent tear-down of a historic courthouse in the state. Nevertheless, we can still claim some really old ones here. Fayette County, for example, boasts a courthouse with certain portions dating all the way back to 1849; it’s the second oldest courthouse still in use around these parts. And despite being a contemporary of the lost Cass County structure, Connersville’s courthouse still remains vital.
The courthouse was originally built 169 years ago. But almost all of what we can see of the building is the result of an extensive 1891 renovation that vastly increased the building’s size and ornamentation. Upon the completion of the original building the structure was massive. Architect John Elder designed it to feature two stories in the Greek Revival style, along with a huge open portico on an arched base1. A square bell tower layered like a wedding cake capped the building’s pediment, and wings on either side of the main mass held county offices, a jail, and a sheriff’s residence2. You might say it was the state’s first justice center- more than a hundred years before counties started consolidating offices and referring to them as such. Think proto-punk- the Misfits came before AFI, but the influence is undeniable.
Architecturally, the closest courthouse in Indiana to what Connersville had is still standing in Paoli, though Connersville’s was larger- imagine the Paoli courthouse with wings on each side and a higher bell tower. But as is often the case, due to the effect of industrialization on the area, it eventually became outmoded. Factories in Connersville first pumped out buggies and furniture, then air turbines, piano tuning pins, and automobiles. At one point, at least seven brands of cars had components coming out of Connersville, and all this work led the city’s population to spike to 4,548 in 1890- an increase of nearly four times since its courthouse was originally built! Similarly to the situation In Logansport, something simply needed done to accommodate the influx of people.
So eventually changes were made. In 1891, commissioners voted to bring in Richmond architect W.F. Kauffman to extensively modify the courthouse3. At that point in history, enormous Romanesque buildings of brick or stone were becoming popular, replacing the geriatric Greek Revival stylings of generations past. So Kauffman started by lopping off the columns and central clock tower, since porticos were sadly out of style. He covered the old building in running bond brick, hiding the Greek Revival details, and began building out the one-story wings on either side of the pediment. The southwest wing gave way to a cylindrical, turreted clock tower; and an octagonal, peaked roof rose from the building’s northeast. Uniquely, the redesigned courthouse featured two front entrances, each flanking the building’s original mass. Two set of dormer windows and a couple of small turrets completed the building’s makeover. Around the same time, Logansport’s courthouse went through a similar makeover. Both counties were prospering- as evident through the retrofits of their courthouses.
Despite the level of industry building up around Fayette County, Connersville’s courthouse remained in this configuration up until the 1950s, when an unadorned brick addition was added to the southwest of the building- obscuring all but the roofline of the original 1849 structure. A small addition in 1960 did the same for the northeast side. But while Fayette County was adding to their old courthouse, Cass County officials were subtracting up in Logansport. Commissioners removed a significant amount of ornamentation from the building’s roofline in 1953, and realized they’d had enough with the old building in 1978, demolishing it in order to build a parking lot for its successor.
Nothing was added to the Fayette County courthouse in 1978, but Connersville’s courthouse wasn’t exactly thriving either. But at least it still stood! The original turret had been decapitated and replaced with a flat roof during the 60s, and later it was converted to a dome4, which made the tower look like a gigantic brick salt shaker with a clock slapped on its side. Inside the building, commissioners layered on more egregious offenses: drop ceilings and drywall was installed to cover up most of the original building’s decorations, including those from the 1949 portion. Though the sheriff’s office had long since moved across the street to a historic space of its own, roominess was again an issue in the old courthouse. But by 2004, county officials had hatched a plan: They tore it down and relocated to an old Walmart in one of Connersville’s suburban annexes.
Just kidding! That didn’t happen, of course, but it nearly did- in Winchester. Connersville officials were more enlightened -or perhaps less cynical- about the role that an appropriate seat of government can play in a community’s self-worth. In Fayette County, commissioners did their job and commissioned a new, three-level addition to the building’s rear that not only matched the scale of the 1890s structure, but increased its utility as well. The main facade of the addition -the north side- features a brick-and-limestone gabled entrance that matches the main elevation, while projecting slightly from the 1960s portion of the building. While modern concessions were made in the new segment’s design, particularly with regards to ADA access requirements, the addition closely matches the primary facade, even featuring a similar, ornamental checkerboard motif at the crux of the gable. This is now the new main entrance to the building. My favorite part of the new addition, though, is how the way the right side of the arch in the photo above gradually falls away past the corner of the addition and briefly wraps around its side. The stonework replicates a feature clearly visible on the building’s primary entrance. The architects of the addition took the time to cop the style of the old building in a way that didn’t need to be done, but they did anyway. Props.
Away from the north front, the rest of the addition appears to flow harmoniously into the older parts of the building in an inventive way, even if the resulting floorpan must be totally nightmarish to navigate. As I’ve mentioned before the high school I graduated from -originally built in 1929- was a mishmash of ramps, infills, and drop ceilings that made navigation annoying and difficult despite having little effect on the exterior of the building. I’d imagine the Fayette County courthouse is the same, but the renovation efforts did bring some harmony to the building’s outside appearance. Around the time of the big addition, the conical roof of the clock tower was restored5, bringing an end to a long, countywide nightmare of a big-ass salt shaker for a clock tower.
Today, Connersville’s industrial prominence has fallen off- probably as result of corporate downsizing and a lack of interstate infrastructure nearby. But because of the continued use and repurposing of the 1849 Fayette County courthouse, citizens of the area are provided with a functional building that accommodates their needs, and we touristy courthouse folks are left with a good example of a Romanesque structure (one of two that exist in the state, according to Indiana Landmarks). For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the second one is. It’s possible Indiana Landmarks is differentiating between Romanesque and Richardson Romanesque, which is a related but distinct style, but I’m not sure here. Oh well.
Nevertheless, Fayette County officials contrasted their counterparts in Logansport by adapting a building originally constructed in the 1840s to their current needs. Despite the additions -and in the voice of Chandler Bing- “Could it BE any better…?” I really don’t think so.
Overall, we’ve seen a few different approaches to county courthouses that outlasted their useful periods. We’ve seen them torn down, mercilessly expanded, mercifully expanded, and even usurped entirely. While Cass County, along with Clarke, Crawford, Delaware, Madison, and Marion counties decided to start over entirely, Connersville bucked that trend and kept their old building in place, choosing to add to it rather than relegate it to history. And what’s more, they did it in harmonious fashion.
By the way- a quick rant here as I look at the pics I took. Someone needs to tell the county commissioners who choose to keep these old buildings intact that trees, power lines, and other infrastructure really don’t make it easy to display them in their glory. More than any other spot in the state (maybe aside from Boonville and Greencastle), Fayette County plagued me with this issue. What is the benefit of having a historic courthouse when no one can see it?
But I digress. Despite some hiccups with the 50s and 60s additions, I’m happy that the Fayette County courthouse in Connersville still proudly serves its constituents. And what’s more- I’m even happier to laud the county’s commissioners for erecting a modern addition that’s architecturally sympathetic to the old building, yet one that retains its usefulness and even integrates the boring additions from years past. This courthouse isn’t in the top tier of favorites of mine, but its definitely unique, and its lessons could have feasibly been applied up near the confluence of the Wabash and Eel rivers in Logansport. Hopefully as we progress into the third century of several of these buildings’ lives, we can realize that and protect their heritage. For now, Connersville’s Fayette County courthouse stands tall. And I expect it to for many years to come.
Fayette County (pop. 23,209, 64/92)
Connersville (pop. 11,747).
Cost: $20,000 ($574,980 in 2016)
Architect: W.F. Kauffman
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Fayette County, Indiana” Genealogy Trails History Group. 2018. Retrieved from http://genealogytrails.com/ind/fayette/courts.html.
2 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Fayette County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
3 National Register of Historic Places, Fayette County Courthouse, Connersville, Fayette County, Indiana, National Register # 06000518
4 Enyart, David. “Fayette County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. December 18, 2018.
5 “Connersville, Built 1890 Remodeled ” Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Retrieved from http://courthousehistory.com.