We see it time and time again in everyday life and through our state’s historic courthouses, but adaptability is a necessary skill for survival. I was reminded of this about a month ago when I saw an ‘On This Day’ notification from eight years ago pop up on my Facebook feed. A simple trip to the property -our family’s large stand of forest in Missaukee County, Michigan- with my girlfriend over the March 11, 2011 weekend generated a couple of hard-wired lessons that, even today, all underscore a serious emphasis on the importance being flexible and resilient. If I’d been stupid(er), we easily could have died!
Thankfully, I was just a normal amount of stupid. We basically took a spontaneous and ill-advised trip to a remote forest in northern Michigan while there was two feet of snow on the ground. Highlights of the trip included getting my car -a five speed, 2006 Hyundai Elantra- stuck in the precipitation, dragging our supplies a quarter mile back to the cabins on a blanket, nearly suffocating ourselves by heating the cabin with a propane stove, and almost freezing to death due to the subzero temperatures. At least we had a portable DVD player to watch Friends reruns on!
I’d been communicating with my dad the whole time, but Daylight Saving Time updated my phone’s clock overnight, causing me to miss calling him that morning by an hour. By the time we got in touch, he was already on his way to tow me out. After an hour, I pulled on an old hunting jumpsuit and started wading back the quarter-mile to the road. As I did, the sound of amplified ragtime music stared wafting towards me through the hardwoods- Dad was there. Eventually got the car out and all returned home, but we had to adapt to a true survival situation that time!
Dad got home too, where he had to adapt to severe pain in his lungs he attributed to exposure to the cold air. He eventually went to the hospital, where he learned he was actually in an advanced stage of kidney failure. Shortly after, he died, six days and eight years ago. Bailing me out from the property was the third-last time I ever saw him alive, and his death brought a substantial change to my life that took years to grapple with. I still do. But it’s important to be adaptable.
That’s what brings us to the Grant County Courthouse. It’s nowhere near Michigan, but the building’s versatility has served it well and has ensured its continued use through the present day. As this blog has frequently seen, preserving old buildings in their original states is hard. Anyone who’s lived in an old house knows this- obviously, they’re expensive to heat and maintain. But add 14-foot ceilings, skylights, artwork, marble, and 160-foot clock towers into the mix and you might have a serious problem on your hands! Though county commissioners with an eye towards history renovate, adapt, and expand the outside of their old courthouses, interior revisions often occur simultaneously. Grant County officials eventually took this route, but maybe the structure was cursed to a life of constant change to begin with: The courthouse, along with its predecessor, sits on the site of an apparent Indian mound -sixty feet in diameter1– that was razed to use bricks for the 1838 government building, a two-story, 40×40 structure reminiscent of those still standing in Rome Corydon, and Wilmington. Though simple, the second courthouse lasted for nearly fifty years.
Half a century is a long time for a public building to stand in the environment without significant alterations. Heck, it took me only about two minutes to adapt and put on a coat when I got stranded at the property! The courthouse probably would have served the county longer, but the area grew swiftly over time due to its position as an agricultural trading center on the Mississinewa River. Per Census figures, the population of Grant County exploded an astonishing 484% in the forty years after its 1838 courthouse was built, and that’s all it took for commissioners to solicit plans for the current structure. By the way- this insane growth occurred PRIOR to the Indiana Gas Boom, which grew Grant County another astonishing 231% to more than 54,000 residents by 1900! Area expansion detonated, and if any town outside of Indy has ever laid claim to the title of “Crossroads of America,” it may as well been here. To put it in perspective, the area’s growth through 1900 just about matched the contemporary expansion we’ve seen lately in Hamilton County -you know, Fishers, Noblesville, and Carmel- over the past two decades, but without the IKEA and TopGolf.
Just a few years after Noblesville finished its county courthouse, commissioners in Grant County took to finding someone worthy of designing one to fit their newfound prominence. They chose E.E. Myers, a Detroit architect who was just as well known for his buildings as he was for his hissy fits when his designs weren’t chosen2. Myers, fresh off a lawsuit alleging that prolific courthouse architect Edwin May plundered his design for the Indiana State Capitol building, often unsuccessfully sued winning bidders by citing stolen ideas and plagiarism. Maybe Myers should have sued himself, though, since he ripped off his own design for the new courthouse in Marion from his 1882 Lorain County Courthouse in Ohio. Shortly after designing the twin courthouses, the guy got fired from projects to build new capitols in Texas and Colorado. By almost zero accounts, he was a real mensch!
I’ll admit it- when I got stuck at the property, I was pretty annoyed and mad at myself. Maybe Myers was too regarding some of his failures. But despite it all, he crafted a great courthouse in Marion. Indiana Landmarks calls the structure Renaissance Revival, but, as designed, the building carried a distinct County Capitol influence. Want to see it as built? Well, it just so happens that I’ve got an old postcard.
Below its dome and tower, the Grant County Courthouse is a three-story structure on a raised basement, featuring a heavily-rusticated stone massing on its initial floors3. The smooth north and south facades of the building -its primary entrances- are identical and feature central porticoes that extend the full height of the courthouse, terminating in pediments that hold a unique, central oculus (most Indiana courthouse pediments of the scale feature a clock face instead). Behind each side’s columns are rectangular relief pediments that repeat the same theme, adding depth to the building’s balconies. Monumental stairs leading to the original main entrances of the courthouse still exist underneath an arcaded balcony, but in modern times they’ve been roped off in favor of two recent, street-level entrances at the building’s south front that lead to its raised basement, now floor one. But hey- at least the stairs are still there. Per a 2011 report by the Indiana Courthouse Advisory Commission, 72% of our state’s still have them. But there are some notable examples where the enormous exterior stairways are missing.
It’s impressive now, but what I wouldn’t give (eh, maybe some skin cells around my elbow) to see the courthouse in its prime. As exhibited in the postcard a few paragraphs back, the building originally featured a forty-foot-tall dome capped by a nine-foot allegorical statue of justice. But a minor fire occurred sometime around 1940 which rendered the tower a liability. Soon after, a 1941 lightning strike hit the weary dome head on4, which caused a 110-volt electric line inside the building to fuse with a separate 220-volt run5. According to a period news article, light bulbs in the building lit up so hot and bright that they temporarily blinded officials working that evening. By 1942, county commissioners recognized the problems that the dome presented and petitioned the council with a $10,000 request to dismantle it and turn over the two-ton bell to the Feds to melt down as part of the war effort6. The council gave them half, and the dome was taken down shortly thereafter. Ironically, the dome in Myers’ Lorain County Courthouse was removed just a year later.
At the property, we’ve periodically cut down hardwoods to ensure new growth. I’m not sure that this is similar, but Marion’s courthouse made some subtractions in order to encourage addition, especially with the dome. As the the county’s needs expanded, the courthouse became subject to the same conversations its predecessor was subject of, due to a lack of space. A 1940 study indicated that remodeling the structure’s guts would actually be self-liquidating7, allowing county offices that rented space downtown to move in and causing the county to save money or at least break even. Along with additional office space, initial renovation plans called for a remodel of both courtrooms, the addition of modern jury spaces, and a new elevator. Unlike its contemporaries in nearby Anderson and Muncie, the Grant County Courthouse featured relatively thin bearing partitions and interior walls8 that meant the general floorpan could be altered if needed. They were, and by the early 1960s those alterations had taken place.
A process called “decking9” involved gutting the building floor by floor as crews installed new stories between the structure’s formerly high ceilings. Aside from the changes suggested years earlier, the extensive remodel provided a new hot water plant, rubber tile flooring, modern lighting and plumbing, and drop ceilings to help conceal the building’s energy costs. All of this helped keep the old courthouse in service after 134 years.
Despite the changes, I love the current version of the Grant County Courthouse. It was able to adapt to the county’s growing needs in a way that its counterparts in Muncie, Anderson, Logansport, New Albany, Clarksville, and Indianapolis weren’t, and that’s important. More crucially, it’s still here! Venerable courthouses such as Marion’s, even in a discombobulated state, preserve what was there, practical changes to their functionality be damned. For me, a tourist, a historic courthouse is stands simply as a landmark and source of pride for the county that it serves.
But for the people who use it on the daily, a historic courthouse is only as viable as they find it to be. Though the building’s interior and exterior have both changed, the Grant County Courthouse in Marion remains a vital structure within our state’s portfolio of historic structures for its constituents as well as for its fans- all thanks to its adaptability, a characteristic that I truly appreciate given my terrible trip to the property eight years ago.
Grant County (pop. 70,061, 22/92)
Marion (pop. 29.948).
Built: 1882, decapitated 1943
Cost: $212,776 ($5.27 million in 2016)
Architect: Elijah E. Myers
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3.5 stories.
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 Enyart, David. “Grant County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 23, 2019.
2 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Shelby County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
3 National Register of Historic Places, Marion Downtown Commercial Historic District, Marion, Grant County, Indiana, National Register # 94000226.
4 “Grant county courthouse struck by lightning.” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie]. June 3, 1941: 9. Print.
5 “Lights Up” The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. June 10, 1941: 8. Print.
6 “Dome Doomed” The Tipton Daily Tribune [Tipton]. August 19, 1942: 7. Print.
7 “Grant Council Studies Courthouse Remodeling” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. July 15, 1940: 24. Print.
8 “Taxpayers association backs courthouse” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. September 23, 1965: 8. Print.
9 “Grant County Courthouse Solution Eyed by Committee.” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. October 3, 1963: 25. Print.