I like courthouses that are prominent from miles away, and there are thankfully enough across the state for me to feast on pretty indiscriminately. Heck- even if I couldn’t get my fill of them at Indiana’s clock tower smorgasbord, a quick drive to Ohio and Michigan would easily let me go back for seconds. Interpret that all however you will, but as I’ve said several times, my parents divorced when I was three and my dad ultimately moved up to Elkhart County, where we’d visit him every other weekend. Typically, parental the hand-off occurred at a Bob Evans or the Fort Myers truck stop at Fort Wayne’s northwest side. But once in Dad’s teal Escort wagon or orange New Beetle, he’d take us on all manner of state highways and back roads up to his house further north. Every single courthouse we passed on the way up had a clock tower, and seeing a lit-up clock from miles away at night was such a cool experience for me as a strange little kid fascinated with architecture.
The 1879 Daviess County Courthouse in Washington had a great clock tower. George Bunting’s design was similar to his original plan in Bloomfield, before county officials significantly altered it1. Two and a half stories of brick with a limestone water table, the courthouse featured pyramidal corner turrets and an understated mansard roof that culminated in a central, squarish, stone tower, itself capped with a pyramidal roof and weather vane2. Just below the copper roof sat four identical clock faces that, crucially, provided the time to Washington’s citizenry before the advent of the wristwatch. Want to see it? Well, above is an old postcard I bought of it- the courthouse was truly a monument to the county, and it would have stacked up favorably to the rest of Bunting’s surviving courthouses in Crawfordsville, Franklin, Frankfort, Bloomfield, Liberty, and Bluffton if it hadn’t been destroyed in a 1927 fire3.
Clock towers, like the one that the old Daviess County Courthouse featured, tended to be built during the middle stage of our state’s courthouse boom. Of those still extant, a quick and non-conclusive study shows that the earliest was probably Orange County’s in Paoli, built in 1850. The rest of them were built over the course of several styles- Greek Revival, Second Empire, Richardson Romanesque, and Beaux Arts. I wouldn’t admit it with a gun to my head, but I believe that our state’s final, original, extant clock tower was Franklin County’s in Brookville, built in 1912 during a reconstruction of the town’s 1854 courthouse. We’ve seen a recent boom in restoring old clock towers since then, but we’ve also seen many removed over the past seventy years. Sometimes, that occurs via a natural disaster, as was the case in Porter County. Sometimes, the whole building is leveled, like we saw in White County. Sometimes we see a random painter advise commissioners that the tower was leaning, like we saw in Montgomery County.
I’ll admit that my interest wanes a little when we talk about courthouses without clock towers that can be seen from miles away. But even one built in 1912 like Brookville’s was an abomination- starting around the early 1900s, when Beaux Arts gave way to Neoclassical courthouse designs, more and more courthouse were built without them. As we made it into the late teens and early 1920s, towers were a downright rarity. Compared to others, the 1920s wasn’t the most prolific decade for courthouse construction in Indiana. It was on the tail end of the courthouse building boom, and of the six neoclassical structures erected during this time, three were replacements from older structures that burned.
Those six 1920s courthouses were, essentially, exercises in reduction as compared to their forebears. Where earlier neoclassical structures were, essentially, limestone-faced rectangles that emphasized vertical fenestration (i.e. rows of tall windows), huge columns, monumental pediments, and large domes, courthouse architecture in the twenties gave way to simpler designs. Although they still tended to feature a rectangular plan of limestone-faced walls, you’ve got to look a little harder to see any ornamentation. Most colonnades were reduced to simple plasters that connected to the main building, monumental staircases were few and far between, and arches and other classical tropes were utilized only sparingly. It feels like we have designers Elmer Dunlap and John Bayard to thank for this simplification-Dunlap’s courthouses in Delphi, Rockport, and Petersburg are all eerily similar, and Bayard’s in Newport and Sullivan are nearly identical as well.
Another 20s-era courthouse in Corydon closely resembles the rest of them too, though it was built of the same Huntingburg yellow brick that distinguished Petersburg’s4. I’m not sure what the impetus was for designing such staid seats of government, but the prevailing wisdom of the time meant that architects kept doing it up until the 30s when a spate of Art Deco courthouses -the style’s next logical evolution- popped up. Since then, our state has seen several modern courthouses take over from their largely Beaux Arts ancestors.
Among those late-stage Neoclassical courthouse is the 1929 Washington County structure, which rises above (figuratively) its contemporaries. For one, the courthouse is located on an elevated square, which adds credence to an otherwise low-lying building. The courthouse itself measures 80×124 feet and tops out at 62 feet tall. Like most of our stone courthouses, the structure gains its strength from brick behind quarrier limestone. Although the courthouse has a flat roof, it does feature a pyramidal, glass, skylight cover, which I observed from a distance unavailable to my camera to take a photo of. In addition to the skylight cover, the roofline features a limestone chimney and penthouse made of yellow brick, just like the courthouses in Corydon and Petersburg. Finally, the courthouse’s roof features a copper enclosure to house the bell from its predecessor. Like its predecessor, the courthouse was a victim of at least one unsuccessful arsonist, but it subsists even to this day5.
The first floor of the courthouse is its base, common to its peers but uncommon to many courthouses which feature a raised basement. A limestone water table clearly divides the lower parts of the courthouse from its predominant floors, and a central parapet on each pavilion features a central clock face. Though the building is in remarkable shape for its ninety years, its clock looks like the waterlogged backup camera of my stepdad’s Hyundai Elantra.
The courthouse’s southwest corner features a double-sided cornerstone reading ERECTED 1928 / ARCHITECTS SUTTON & ROUTT / VINCENNES INDIANA / CONTRACTOR / ENGLISH BROS. / CHAMPAIGN ILLINOIS. The west panel of the corner stone lists four of the county’s commissioners at the time of the courthouse’s construction.
The building’s south elevation is its primary face, containing a projecting pavilion with six freestanding columns that, in my view, raise a middle finger towards the bland pilasters of its contemporaries. Interestingly, a phoenix features on the front face of each column, a certain reference to the seat of government rising from the literal ashes of the building’s predecessor. The columns support a wide parapet shaped like a lengthy pediment that features rectangular, shoulder corners6.
The building’s size, along with its unique design features, serve to separate it from its contemporaries in our state. But what really struck me as unique was the courthouse lawn. The entire area has a limestone curb, and the front lawn features a public plaza six feet higher than the surrounding streets. A half-circle walkway from the block’s southeast and southwest meets at the massive stairs of the courthouse, and despite the courthouse’s lack of height, its surroundings make up the difference and give the building a place of significant prominence in downtown Washington. I really love that arched pathway. It makes the front of the building for me.
As a kid riding up to dad’s, I loved those prominent buildings that, though I wasn’t sure exactly where we were, became clues that would lead me home to draw them better from memory the next time we passed through. Though the Daviess County Courthouse lacks a prominent clock tower, its setting provides a notability in downtown Washington anyway that I’m sure I would have given notice to as a kid. Like I said, I view our courthouse portfolio as a buffet, , and now that Ryan’s and Old County Buffet are mostly gone from the landscape, the only buffets I get to go to, sparingly, are Chinese. But I love Chinese food! I love salmon that’s been sitting out in metal trays for hours, I love lo mein, and I love the little corncobs in whatever stir fry it is that I eventually tend to choose.
But we’ve all been to Chinese buffets with limp-looking pizza slices and mozzarella sticks. Though I pass them by, I offer them a mental pat on the head and first bump in solidarity. They’re living their truths up there on the counter, but I’m not necessarily going to seek them out. That attitude, sort of interested based on their context but ultimately dismissive, is how I regard most of these 1920s courthouses. But every now and then, a little bit of the adjacent tray spills into the boring old American food, making for an interesting fusion of Sweet-and-Sour fish sticks or General Tso’s fries. I’ll hit that up every day, and that’s why I love the Daviess County Courthouse- even though its predecessor, George Bunting’s Second Empire structure- might have made a more traditional meal.
Daviess County (pop. 32,407, 54/92)
Washington (pop. 11,887)
Cost: $317,136 ($4.44 million in 2016)
Architect: Sutton & Routt
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2.5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 National Register of Historic Places, Greene County Courthouse, Bloomfield, Greene County, Indiana, National Register #08000912.
2 “Washington, Built 1879 ” Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Retrieved from http://courthousehistory.com.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Daviess County Courthouse, Washington, Daviess County, Indiana, National Register #08000916.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Pike County Courthouse, Petersburg, Pike County, Indiana, National Register #08000913.
5 Enyart, David. “Daviess County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. April 21, 2019.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Daviess County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org