Indiana courthouses have gone through several architectural phases. Once log and frame structures fell out of favor and brick became the norm in the teens and early 1820s, early courthouses were surpassed by simple Greek Revival structures like the courthouses found in Rising Sun, Paoli, and Nashville. With some exceptions, Second Empire became the stylistic norm after the Civil War, followed by Richardson Romanesque and Beaux Arts towards the end of the century. Starting around 1905, the preferences of county officials changed yet again, leading to what I call the Classical Revival, or neoclassical, era. A few Art Deco courthouses later, we now find ourselves in the modern period.
Each style is uniquely different, though no architectural period of our state’s courthouse history has led to more similar buildings being built than that neoclassical timeframe from 1905 to 1929. There were three main types of neoclassical courthouse that roughly correspond to three unique phases. Interestingly, each subsequent phase resulted in a plainer structure as stylistic preferences and budgets changed. To understand these buildings, let’s start by visualizing the courthouses in Greencastle, Huntington, and Brazil. Imagine a limestone box, three to four stories tall. Above the first floor of each side rises a central group of columns that terminates in a triangular pediment with a clock in it. A squat dome that protects an internal skylight sits atop the box’s middle, a vestigial cupola tho serve as the missing link between later neoclassical courthouses and their Beaux Arts predecessors from the 1890s.
The second phase from 1912 to 1914 got rid of the dome and gave us courthouses in Danville and Auburn. The final phase, from 1917 to 1929, further deleted a floor and the triangular pediments, sticking the clock inside a flat parapet. Courthouses in Delphi (today’s subject), Rockport, Petersburg, Newport, Sullivan, and Washington all fit that bill. Get rid of the clock entirely and you’ll have an idea of the courthouses in Portland and Corydon.
Confusing? Yes. It doesn’t help that John Gaddis designed the three with domes, or that Elmer Dunlap drew up plans for three of the later ones. Throw John Bayard -architect of Newport’s and Sullivan’s- into the mix and you’ve got a real architectural soup. With so many near-identical courthouses, it’s tough to differentiate them. But I think I found a way.
Whoever wrote the NRHP application for last week’s Vermillion County Courthouse might be on to something. To demonstrate each courthouse’s relative value to its constituents, the author of that recommended taking the building’s cost, adjusting for inflation, and dividing that number by the number of people living in the county at the time of construction1.This gives us an figure that more or less indicates each county’s per capita construction spend and, therefore, how the similar courthouses stack up towards one another financially. Now obviously it’s not foolproof. Inflation calculators are sort of irrelevant, and the formula doesn’t account for how each building was financed (bonds, etc). Finally, the populations listed are estimates I concocted based on assuming a linear trend of growth or decline.
Regardless, here are the results. Courthouses are sorted oldest to newest. Red rows indicate the first wave of neoclassical courthouses, yellow the second, and green the third- which we’re centering on today. Obviously, at least from my extrapolation of the data, Carroll County was willing to spend much more per person for their courthouse than the next county.
The current courthouse is the community’s third and, unlike many others in Indiana, Delphi has always served as the county seat. After a few years of holding court in resident Daniel Baum’s cabin, a local school, and the clerk’s office on the square2, local officials decided to build their first real courthouse in 1831. They took their sweet time getting it right, too, as the modest building consisting of two 50×50 foot stories with a twelve-foot tall cupola, took a full seven years to construct. Though the story of the first courthouse isn’t that interesting, the tale of how the county acquired its bell is: For some reason, residents of Delphi petitioned that the bell of a wrecked Ohio River steamboat be recovered and placed in the building’s cupola, contributing a total of $93 to make it happen. Why’d they decide to latch on to the wrecks of the Othello and the Peru? It was the ship carrying the first courthouse’s bell to Delphi during the 1830s, but sank on arrival. Today the bell sits in the rotunda.
By 1856, the first courthouse had outlived its usefulness and was demolished, though officials held onto the steamboat bell. The next courthouse, featuring Gothic Revival and Second Empire elements including two massive towers facing southeast, lasted until 1917 when it too became too old to administer county business effectively.
Like I said, the exterior of the Carroll County Courthouse is not particularly unique. But these neoclassical courthouses around Indiana really tend to excel in two places: inside the building itself, and around the courthouse square. Inside, large segmental archways lead to a massive rotunda that rises above tiled floral mosaics across the floor. Marble and scagliola line the walls and, though not visible from street level, an octagonal skylight peeks up from behind the courthouse’s parapet to allow light to flood into the stained glass dome and penetrate through the building’s three floors4. As is common with these types of courthouses, office blocks and courtrooms surround the central atrium.
The courthouse green is another area where the building stands out. Every county seems to have the same doughboy statue outside, but our neoclassical courthouses are home to all kinds of crazy things. The Clay County Courthouse in Brazil has an F-86 fighter jet on their lawn, and Greencastle’s Putnam County Courthouse has a legit German Buzz Bomb4! In Delphi, though, I found the monumental elements of the courthouse square to be more intimate. For starters is the Murphy Memorial Drinking Fountain at the square’s southwest corner. Donated by resident Clara Murphy upon her death in 1917, the fountain features a bronze sculpture of a girl holding a cup that was created by Myra Reynolds Richards5, a prominent Indiana artist who later became the head of the Herron Art Institute’s department of anatomy and sculpture.
Across the way from the drinking fountain stands the enormous 1888 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which combines obvious Egyptian influences -an obelisk- with classical elements and is reminiscent of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at the circle in Indianapolis. That’s no coincidence, as the bronze tablets of Delphi’s memorial were designed by Rudolf Schwarz, an Austrian sculptor hand-selected by monument architect Bruno Schmitz to create the massive statuary featured on the Indianapolis landmark6. The square also features the bell from the first two Carroll County Courthouses and good ship Othello.
Though none of those exterior features count towards the courthouse’s cost as noted in my spreadsheet, Carroll County’s is a fine example of a neoclassical courthouse. As much as I rag on them for being ubiquitous across our state, classical architecture has been tied to democracy since the days of ancient Greece. Though Indiana courthouse architecture largely deviated from it for the fifty or sixty years prior to the turn of the century, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 partially brought it back, as evidenced by columns, pediments, and stone used in later Beaux Arts courthouses across the state. Furthermore, the 1897 appointment of James Knox Taylor to the position of Supervising Architect of the Treasury seems to have sealed the deal7, as strict classicism was his choice for new federal buildings. Some believe that, due to the style’s prominence, Carroll County officials in 1916 may not have even considered another mode of architecture when planning their new building.
Though my visit to Delphi was brief (I also went to Monticello and Logansport for photos prior to a noon funeral I needed to attend), it represented my first visit to one of these classical revival courthouses. The building and it’s history, along with the contents of its square, represent something unique that Carroll County can be proud of, just as citizens were when they forked over more than fifty dollars each to build it than those of the next county that constructed one. I think that’s a win for current residents who have a courthouse to be proud of.
Carroll County (pop. 20,086, 71/92)
Delphi (pop. 2,888)
Cost: $250,000 ($4.68 million in 2016)
Architect: Elmer Dunlap
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: County offices and courts
1 National Register of Historic Places, Vermillion County Courthouse, Newport, Vermillion County, Indiana, National Register # 07001283.
2 Enyart, David. “Carroll County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 23, 2019.
3 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Shelby County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved June 16, 2019.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Putnam County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved June 16, 2019.
5 Burnet, Mary J. Art and Artists in Indiana. Neddlefork: The Century Co., 1921. Print.
6 Rose, Ernestine B. The Circle: The Center of Indianapolis. Indianapolis, Ind. 1971. Crippin Printing Corporation. Print.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Carroll County Courthouse, Delphi, Carroll County, Indiana, National Register # 03001313.