Today we’re revisiting the jeopardized Washington County Courthouse in Salem, where some clock tower drama has recently monopolized the news. Here in Indiana, we’ve had our share of that sort of thing, but the 21st century has been an exciting time for Indiana’s historic courthouses. More and more county seats across the state are rediscovering the value of restoring their landmark governmental buildings, and restoring them in an architecturally sympathetic manner is a growing trend across the country. Located about fifty minutes north of Louisville and about two hours dead south from central Indianapolis, it looked like the Washington County Courthouse wasn’t going to join that party when I first wrote about it about a year ago. Thankfully, though, it has- at least as of a year ago tomorrow, when Indiana Landmarks announced that repairs had finally been scheduled.
Originally built in 1888, the courthouse is truly unique among its peers in Indiana. As far as design goes, Romanesque Revival buildings are fairly common across the state. 14 out of 92 courthouses, or fifteen percent, were built in this monumental style, which used medieval themes to imply a sense of permanence and weight through heavy masonry, polygonal towers, and rounded arches. Many look similar to one another, but Salem’s stands out. The first Romanesque Revival courthouse in the state, Washington County’s was a local effort, built from limestone quarried a mile out of town1. It stands two stories above a raised basement and features windows that bring light to the attic level underneath a hipped roof with a deck. One distinctive feature is the main entrance, which is accessed through a projecting, columned porch.
The main features of the courthouse, though, is its clock tower which rises a dramatic five stories from the building’s southwest corner, punctuated by a succession of shapes. The tower’s third story is a square, its fourth is an octagon featuring four six-foot-wide clock faces, and its fifth story is a cylinder that is capped by a conical roof. Overall, it reminds me of the type of courthouse I’d design with wooden blocks as a five year old! But it took the prolific McDonald Brothers a little more finesse than it would have taken me as a radical departure from their other Indiana courthouse in Princeton, as well as their extensive remodel of the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg.
That clock tower -the Washington County Courthouse’s most notable feature- has caused nothing but problems since it was struck by lightning in 1934. Destroyed down to its masonry, the strike caused $94,000 of damages in contemporary money and took firefighters three hours to subdue the resulting blaze. Notably, the clocks continued to function as normal throughout the fire, despite the destruction of the courthouse bell2. While the tower was restored, it wasn’t done very well. Water from the firefighting effort got trapped in the stone, which led to significant deterioration over the years. Though efforts to repair the clock tower got underway as early as 19963, nothing was done to permanently fix the tower. When I got to Salem, the portion of the square around the tower was fenced off, in case a strong wind brought about the tower’s demise into the surrounding streets.
The building simply must be saved- there’s been little debate regarding its architectural and cultural value. Described by Washington County historian Jeremy Elliott as “the cherished centerpiece of the county,” and “our beautiful limestone castle4,” it should be kept whole. Unfortunately, for a time saving the building’s clock tower seemed like an unrealistic goal. Washington County is rural, with no major highways and a population of only 27,670. Statistically, the county’s per capita and household incomes are about 29% lower than the United States average, and family income is about 24% behind the countrywide average5. It’s not a shocker to hear, then, that the county’s unemployment rate is much higher than the state’s average, as is the amount of residents living below the poverty line. What’s this mean for the courthouse? Well, when the fifth-largest employer in the county is a single Wal-Mart store6, money’s a little harder to come by for seemingly less urgent projects. In 1888, all it took was a little bit of civic pride for Washington County to secure the funds to construct a brand new monument to the community. Unfortunately in 2018, it took a lot more to do a lot less.
Although at least six historic courthouses across Indiana lost their clock towers in the 20th century, contemporary efforts have reintroduced four. Jefferson County’s returned after a 2009 fire gutted the building7, and Randolph County’s was restored in 2011 as part of a massive renovation project. Last summer, the Montgomery County courthouse boasted a replacement clock tower, and Martin County’s rehabilitate bell tower wasn’t too far behind. It would have been a real shame for this restoration trend to be upset, though, so Indiana Landmarks jumped in to save the day- in an effort to spur public sentiment towards saving the Salem skyline, the preservation group added the courthouse to its annual 10 Most Endangered list in 2016. Thankfully, bids to repair the clock tower were secured in April of 2018. County officials designated Arsee Engineers of Fishers, along with RATIO architects from Indianapolis to develop a list of repairs concentrating around the courthouse’s roof and tower. That month, commissioners chose General Restoration Corporation, of Columbus, Ohio, to stabilize the clock tower, repair the roof, and repair errant masonry issues through a $1 million project8.
Unfortunately, that’s where my research stops. The Washington County Courthouse project isn’t yet listed on General Restoration’s website, though four completed jobs at Indiana courthouses mingle with twenty other regional courthouses that they’ve restored. For what it’s worth, the structure is off of Indiana Landmarks’ ten most endangered list, which is a good sign of things to come. Hopefully that’s a sign of good things. Though the Washington County Courthouse in Salem would still be a great focal point for the community without the clock tower, we’ve come too far to start decapitating our historic courthouses again. Ideally, the next few years will give us some additional hope regarding Salem’s 131-year-old landmark.
Washington County (pop. 28,289, 57/92)
Salem ( pop. 6,238)
Built: 1888, clocktower rebuilt in 1934 after fire.
Cost: $74,037 ($1.97 million in 2016)
Architect: H, K, &R McDonald
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Lancaster Square
Height: 5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 4/3/2016- 79/92
1 National Register of Historic Places, Washington County Courthouse, Salem, Washington County, Indiana, National Register # 80000047.
2 “Bolt Hits Tower of Courthouse” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis] July 12, 1934: 15. Print.
3 “Money, not time, holds man from tower of dreams” The Courier-Journal [Louisville] March 10, 1996: 1B. Print.
4 “ Group tolls bell for ailing courthouse in Salem” The Courier-Journal [Louisville] April 28, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.courierjournal.com.
5 “Washington County, Indiana” American Fact Finder. United States Census Bureau. 2018. Retrieved from https://factfinder.census.gov.
6 Major Employers for Washington County” Hoosiers By The Numbers. Indiana Department of Workforce Development. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.hoosierdata.in.gov.
7 “Courthouse sustains heavy fire damage” The Madison Courier [Madison] May 21, 2009. Retrieved from https://madisoncourier.com.
8 “Repairs Scheduled for Washington County Courthouse” Indiana Landmarks [Indianapolis]. April 16, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.indianalandmarks.org/2018/04/repairs-begin-washington-county-courthouse/.