It’s easy to lament our state’s historic courthouses that have been lost to natural disasters, deferred maintenance, and the increasing needs of growing communities. Through old postcards, I’ve seen just about all of Indiana’s 20th century courthouse casualties, and though I haven’t gotten close to teary over their destruction, I’ve certainly lamented it in some cases.
I get especially sour in viewing those old postcards given that so many courthouses have recently been saved and restored. I started this project way back in 2012 when Randolph County officials were putting the finishing touches on the architecturally-sympathetic addition and restoration of their old courthouse. But unfortunately, not every building could be saved though I hope that our state’s newfound appreciation of our historic courthouses can help local officials decline prospective meetings with the wrecking ball. Right now, residents and officials of Pulaski County are grappling with what to do with their magnificent old structure. Back in the late 60s, residents of Madison County and Anderson were doing the same.
I was in Anderson Saturday to see a movie outside of the highfalutin excess that my local AMC has introduced in the form of online ticket purchasing, recliners, and a new bar. I’m the type of person who goes to a movie to watch a movie, not sprawl out and get drunk like a Roman imperial. So off to Anderson I went, 10.4 miles out of my way, to watch “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” at the spartan multiplex there. I didn’t go downtown, but every time I do I make a mental note of the Madison County Courthouse, built in 1972 to replace a 90-year-old George Bunting structure. Naturally, my thoughts tend to turn towards the Clinton County Courthouse, the old building’s twin that thankfully still stands in Frankfort.
Just as it took a while for me to get to the theater in Anderson, it took Clinton County residents a while to get to the present courthouse- about fifty-three years. Upon its organization, county meetings were originally held in the town of Jefferson, a few miles east of Frankfort. Residents there had high hopes and sent a petition up to the state legislature in order to add part of Tippecanoe County to theirs in order to make Jefferson more centrally located and preserve its spot as the county seat1. Sadly, like the first eight years of my twenties, the opportunity was squandered, as county officials tweeted Mathew Bunnell’s cabin2 back to him and moved to Frankfort the following year. Unlike many early county seats around Indiana, Jefferson actually still exists as a community. An empty gas station; an old storefront; a church; an enormous, crumbling, school, and a massive water tower that says “Frankfort” are about all that’s left there.
County officials didn’t have a long trip to move whatever burgeoning records they had from Jefferson to Frankfort- the first log courthouse was situated on the current courthouse square just four-and-a-half miles east of the old county seat. 1.5 stories tall, clapboard-sided, and located at the south side of the square, the log structure lasted seven years. In 1838, a two-story building with enough room for county offices was constructed, said to have been designed by John Elder, a prominent Indiana courthouse architect until he fled the state to escape the pursuit of creditors from his Rush County Courthouse project in the early 1850s3.
By 1880, the growing county again needed more space to properly conduct business, and though officials had long known the need was there, their predecessors had consistently demurred- even nearly 140 years ago, Hoosiers hated paying their taxes, and local officials didn’t want to get caught up in the backlash that would surely come up if they tried to fund a new courthouse4.
Thankfully, the county was able to skirt the issue. Though the phrase “If you build it, he will come,” worked for Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams,” Clinton County experienced the exact opposite, which is what we have to thank for their present courthouse. Between 1870 and 1880, the county’s population rose from 17,330 people to nearly 23,500, and the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Frankfort itself grew even more, soaring from 1,300 to 2,803- an increase of 115.6%, and none of whom, as best as I can tell, were the ghastly apparition of Shoeless Joe Jackson. 1919 White Sox phantoms or otherwise, the people certainly came to Clinton County in droves. The influx enabled commissioners to finally act, which they did by hiring Indianapolis architect George Bunting to draw plans for a new courthouse. By 1882, the old courthouse was sold off at auction for $3005, and the cornerstone to Bunting’s monumental new design was laid that September. Though there were some troubles (the three county commissioners were all democrats and soon the opposing party rose up to protest the “mud cement6” used in the building’s foundation), it was completed in 1884, along with the Madison County Courthouse fifty-four miles to the southeast.
As I said before, the two buildings were nearly identical aside from Clinton County’s front-facing oolitic limestone costing more than Anderson’s brick. But despite their similarity, the two are clearly unique from the six other courthouses Bunting designed across Indiana, six of which still remain. At Frankfort and Anderson, the architect employed a burgeoning style called “county capitol,” that featured symmetrical designs, a central clock tower and dome, and what a local historian called “modern English and Italian features7”. Bunting’s use of this design is interesting to note because, by 1891, he’d pretty much given up the French influence, choosing instead to employ Richardson Romanesque designs for his courthouses in Liberty and Bluffton. If anything, the man was adaptable, and the sheer percentage of his courthouses still standing after more 125 years (six of eight, or 75%) confirms that trait.
The courthouse in Frankfort is monumental in the way it anchors downtown. 3.5 stories tall, the building’s raised basement and first real floor are smoothly-rusticated, which means the masonry is very obviously delineated, but the stone itself isn’t rough-cut like your grandpa’s haggard old briar pipe. Above that, the second and third floors feature central Corinthian pilasters supporting triangular pediments that frame three recessed narrow windows topped by a larger, arched transom.
Until the 1950s, monumental staircases provided access to the building’s first floor, but were removed to provide ground-level access to the building’s former baseemt. What were once the building’s main entrances appear to have been converted to windows- monumental stairways aren’t great for ADA accessibility, an issue that only a few courthouses across the state have been able to navigate by keeping them intanct. It’s worth noting that, as of its destruction, Madison County’s courthouse retained its massive exterior stairs, though they were crumbling.
Take a glance up the building to its roofline. Though the building features a dense, contrasting parapet, some of its most remarkable features are above the roofline. Stepped pavilions at each of the building’s corners serve as the foundation for larger-than-life statues of seated allegorical features, while central pedestals above the east and west entryways feature similar standing figures. That these statues still remain are a testament not only to the artisans who created them, but to the county workers tasked with the building’s maintenance.
Crane your neck even further up, and take a few steps back if you must. Now, Frankfort’s home to a few cool domes. The first one that comes to mind is Case Arena at the town’s eastern boundary. It’s the home gym for Frankfort High School’s 4A Hot Dogs basketball and volleyball teams. The second -and much taller at 165 feet- dome is the one you’re looking at now. The clock tower has a smooth base and a highly-embellished square pavilion that features two narrow windows on each side of a projecting, pedimented bay that holds the clock. That circular dome, replaced in 2002, tops the tower, and supports a recreated, 1992 lantern. Although the courthouse dome lacks the seating capacity of Case Arena, I’m sure the views are better. Who knows? Maybe the clock tower features a basketball court up there for maintenance workers to enjoy on breaks, just like the Matterhorn at Disneyland.
Speaking of Disneyland, Walt Disney had this to say when discussing his then-new park: “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it requires people to make the dream a reality.”
Though one would hardly call a courthouse the most wonderful place in the world, Disney’s insight still rings true regarding George Bunting’s courthouses in Frankfort and Anderson. After the buildings were dreamed up, created, designed, and built in an effort that included the entirety of both communities, their keys were turned over to local officials through whose stewardship the dream would continue to be made a reality. In Anderson, the efforts eventually failed. As I left there the other day and as we’ve examined this tale of two courthouses this morning, I’m grateful that one of Bunting’s twins, at least, is still standing. That it’s in such fantastic shape with its restored dome and intact rooftop statues is just the cherry on top.
Clinton County (pop. 32,916, 50/92)
Frankfort (pop. 16,249)
Cost: $200,000 ($4.95 million in 2016)
Architect: George W. Bunting
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 165 feet
Current use: Courts and some county offices
1 Enyart, David. “Clinton County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2019. Web. August 11, 2019.
2 “A century of progress; an account of the Clinton county centennial with a general review of the past century” (1930). The Morning Times [Frankfort]. Print. Page 54.
3 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. August 11, 2019.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Posey County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 8/4/19.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Clinton County Courthouse, Frankfort, Clinton County, Indiana, National Register # 78000027.
6 Claybaugh, Joseph. “History of Clinton County, Indiana: With Historical Sketches of Representative Citizens and Genealogical Records of Many of the Old Families” (1913). A.W. Bowen & Company [Indianapolis]. Print. Page 119.