A few days ago, I watched a montage of infomercial fails on YouTube. You know what I’m talking about- a woman attempting to open a jar of Ragu tries loosening the lid the wrong way, hits it with a knife a few times, holds it right up her face, and POW! She gets smoked in the beak with the lid, chunky garden marinara all over her head, shirt, and countertop. Or the guy who sits down on his pristine couch with a gigantic soda in one hand and a bowl of popcorn and TV remote in the other. Simply trying to turn the screen on, he manages to spill every last kernel of his payload, along with 44 ounces of pop, all over the new rug. Although spilled junk food is a common theme, my favorite is the hapless guy innocently trying to appraise the width of his windowsill. In dramatic fashion, he trips and gets tangled up in the measuring tape, which puts him, flailing, on the mat. There’s just got to be a better way!
Like these infomercial every-men, I find myself feeling reasonably competent at a variety of simple tasks- that is, until I fail at them. So, I’m sure, did architect George Bunting, the designer of multiple Indiana courthouses. But sometimes a situation develops the need to call in the pros. Mine came a few months ago while trying to extract a 26-foot U-Haul truck full of robots from a muddy lawn over a curb in Chicago. Bunting had his moment back a hundred and twenty-eight years ago when the clock tower of his newly-completed Union County Courthouse toppled over.
Tired of wrestling around with big, bulky, clock tower debris and masonry littering your public square? Bunting was, so he fixed it fast and made it last- no Mighty Putty, Hercules Hooks, or OxiClean necessary. But despite the quick rebuild, the event was still notable! Clock towers failing? Psh! That’s the kind of thing that happened to guys like J.C. Johnson, a carpenter and self-taught architect from Ohio1 whose four county courthouses all got their clock towers lopped off and replaced eventually due to structural failure.
It turns out that that’s a bit of an oversimplification, though. Bunting’s record, while not perfect, was only slightly better than Johnson’s. From 1890 to 1952, three of his eight courthouse clock towers got the axe. I guess designing towers is hard! Only Edwin May, who designed nine Indiana courthouses, was more prolific than Bunting. Though May was only active through 18792 -when courthouses really started getting intricate and started regularly exceeding 160 feet tall— none of his clock towers failed.
I guess we can chalk the failures up to the emergence of new, relatively-untested building techniques in Indiana. My 2008 Dodge Avenger, part of the car’s first model year, was a similar bust, but I don’t let that reflect poorly on a Charger with a tried-and-true Hemi.
Edwin May missed the out on the first Hemi by about seventy years, but it was he who designed Union County’s second courthouse -which Bunting’s structure replaced- in 1856. May’s design was typical of the 1850s, a brick, two-story building with a large belfry on one side, costing $14,0003, and competitively priced compared to his other courthouses. Unfortunately, future-proofed it wasn’t. Despite the county’s net growth of just sixty-two people from 1850 to 1890, commissioners thought that the area’s needs had rapidly outpaced what the courthouse offered. Despite protestations from residents4, the county started soliciting bids for a new one.
Now, we’ve talked a lot about burgeoning communities and all the tricks they played to gain favor when competing with one another for the title of county seat. It turns out, architects are the same way! There’s a huge, tangled, web of Indiana architects vying with each other for the chance to draft plans for the state’s next new courthouse. While Union County didn’t experience a lot of geopolitical animosity, the bidding process for the new courthouse design turned into a fight between three prominent factions- the veteran, the copycats, and the rookies. On one side was George Bunting, the established, veteran architect of six Indiana courthouses looking to pad his resume with a seventh. On another side was the McDonald Brothers of Louisville, Kentucky, who had outright copied Bunting’s 1882 Johnson County Courthouse with their own version in Princeton three years later, along with expanding Edwin May’s old courthouse in Greensburg. The third major competitor was the upstart Fort Wayne firm of Wing & Mahurin. Though they hadn’t designed a courthouse yet themselves, both principals were former draftsman of T.J. Tolan, who along with his son designed seven courthouses in the state. Though Bunting won the Union County job, Wing & Mahurin, along with Mahurin’s nephew, would go on to design five county courthouses in Indiana, along with a replacement clock tower for J.C. Johnson’s decrepit original in Decatur. The McDonald Brothers went on to design more than twenty more courthouse across the midwest5.
It seems to have all worked out. Bunting tended to prefer courthouses in the neoclassical and county capitol modes of architecture, but he turned out something decidedly different in Union County- his first Richardson Romanesque courthouse. To be honest, the new style is probably what led to the clock tower falling over. Until then, four of his six Indiana courthouses had featured central towers, and the two that didn’t (which would ultimately be removed in the 1940s and 50s) didn’t feature the heavy, rock-faced massing that Union County’s did, so he likely didn’t account for the extra support structure needed to keep it vertical. Redesigning and rebuilding the fallen tower wasn’t an easy process, taking nine months and nearly doubling the project’s length, but today you’d never have any clue of what happened. Credit goes to Bunting in this case. His other two courthouses with front-facing clock towers did not end up faring as well. Nonetheless, all of his standing Indiana centers of government are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
So just what does a NRHP listing get Union County? A phenomenal courthouse. The front of the building is its north facade. Symmetrical and three bays wide, it consists of gabled wall dormers that frame a central entry arch that’s accessed by climbing twenty monumental steps. The replacement four-story tower rises from between the dormers, capped by a pyramidal roof and featuring four clock faces surrounded by checkerboard motifs. The most striking features of the building’s northeast and northwest corners are probably the two rounded turrets that match two sets of paired windows with foliated lintels. The south side of the courthouse is made up of a tall, central gable surrounded by two square towers with pyramidal roofs. Because of the way US-27 and IN-44 curve into town, it’s hard to se the courthouse from long distance like you can somewhere like Tipton (I measured five miles away from the south there). Once you’re in downtown Liberty, though, its presence can’t possibly be ignored.
A recent, $4 million renovation added an elevator and updated the building’s elderly functional systems, ensuring that it will still be at the forefront of prominence in Union County for years into the fut- But wait, there’s more! Introducing the Wells County Courthouse, new for 1891 from George Bunting & Son, makers of the courthouse in Union County! Buy now for three easy payments of just $1.3 million ($140,000 in 1891 money)! Operators are standing now- call today*!
Union County (pop. 7,277, 91/92)
Liberty (pop. 2,068).
Cost: $130,000 ($3.46 million in 2016)
Architect: George W. Bunting
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2.5 stories
Current use: County offices and courts
1 National Register of Historic Places, Adams County Courthouse, Decatur, Adams County, Indiana, National Register # 8000914.
2 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 16, 2019.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Union County Courthouse, Liberty, Union County, Indiana, National Register # 87000103.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Shelby County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
5 National Register of Historic Places, Gibson County Courthouse, Princeton, Gibson County, Indiana, National Register # 84001038.