People have a tendency to assign human traits and characteristics to animals and even inanimate objects- installing eyelashes on the headlights of a new Beetle is a perfect example of this behavior, known as anthropomorphizing. Sometimes it’s a fun, harmless activity. Other times, not so much- no matter how cute and cuddly your friend’s pet monkey looks to you, it could still rip your face off. It’s a wild animal, after all, no matter how you slice it.
Instead of fraternizing with any manner of exotic pets or untamed beasts, I tend to go the safer direction and anthropomorphize buildings- namely courthouses. It’s a prudent route, one where the only real sources of harm could be getting knocked out by a falling parapet or being flattened by a Mack truck barreling its way through downtown.
I’m okay with those risk factors. Mind you, I’m not a rookie at this; I started this practice as a little kid. Back in May of 2018 I described the Elkhart County Courthouse as greeting my brother and me on trips to our dad’s house in Goshen like “a benevolent cyclops beckoning to the safety of his house.” I called it that because by the time we arrived it was always dark, and the courthouse’s clock face was always lit. A stretch with that particular courthouse maybe, but feast your eyes upon LaPorte County’s exuberant 1894 building, which resembles either a giant cyclops just waking up from a long nap, or a one-eyed colossus in a world of hurt.
Regardless, the building’s open-arched clock tower that shapes its gaping maw -designed to let natural light flood through a massive 273-piece glass skylight1– is just one of the interesting features Brentwood Tolan crammed into his “freewheeling2” interpretation of the Richardson Romanesque style, his only foray into that mode after several Beaux Arts courthouses he drew up. I still wonder how tall the clock tower rises, and no resource has been able to help; I’d peg it at 165-170 feet tall- certainly impressive. Inside, the only way to see that magnificent skylight is to go to the second floor since a modern elevator shaft covers it from the first and basement story. Even so, this building has no peer in Indiana, and aside from that tower, the most glaring feature is the building’s color. That’s some serious red brick!
Red brick makes for some striking Richardson Romanesque courthouses, especially in Noble County’s Albion. But a closer inspection reveals that the LaPorte County Courthouse is actually built out of sandstone- Lake Superior red sandstone, to be exact, which was carried to Michigan City by boat and brought to LaPorte by rail. Several sandstone courthouses exist across the state, but this is the only one that features this particular hue. Iron oxide in the rock provides the crimson color3, just as the sands from Lake Michigan turned Ball jars blue back in the olden days. And for the Ball jar enthusiasts among us, occasionally purple sandstone can found as well- made that color from the sand’s manganese content, a clarifying agent in early Ball jars that, over time in a kitchen window, can turn them amethyst as it reacts with exposure to UV rays.
Jars aside, though, another one of Tolan’s features is the presence of 45 “argyles4”, red sandstone sculptures of heads and animals generally used as capitals for the building’s columns around the exterior of the courthouse. Each are different, and they’re all probably misnamed, but LaPorte County historian Fern Eddy Schultz refers to them that bizarre name, so I will too. They’re not really gargoyles anyway, since they’re not designed to funnel water away from the courthouse’s roof and sides.
I think it’s interesting that the building’s northeastern entrance, facing Michigan Avenue, was bricked in during 1937 to make way for a vast, fireproof vault that rises from the basement to the second floor. It was designed to serve as a secure repository for county clerk and recorded documents, and though I’ve not found anything to corroborate this, I wonder if the vault was built in response to the fire that largely decimated the neighboring Porter County Courthouse in Valpo three years earlier and necessitated calls to fire departments in LaPorte (twenty miles away) as well as others, to resolve.
Several early courthouses were lost to fires, but you’d be crazy to think the current structure was LaPorte County’s first courthouse even though LaPorte’s always been the county seat here. The original structure was frame, built sometime prior to 1832 by George Thomas. His 16×24 foot building was used until 1849 or so, when Col. Willard Place, who helped build it, bought it and moved it to his own property to use as a house. What followed was a brick courthouse designed by J.C. Cochrane, who later went on to design that burnt Valparaiso courthouse along with the Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point. The structure in LaPorte -meant to be a statement- consisted of a 40×40 square building with a three-story cupola featuring three floors- a square base, an octagonal drum, and a dome with a spire on top5. Photos of that building exist with and without a front portico, and whether or not they depict the same building is up for debate. For what it’s worth, the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum believes both postcards are of their old courthouse6. And for your information, the current courthouse incorporates its predecessor’s cornerstone7.
Now, an aside: The historical society’s current building, originally housing Dr. Peter Kesling’s Door Prairie Auto Museum, became home to the historical society in 2004. Kesling designed its cupola as a reproduction of the original courthouse’s cupola, and you can still see it today. During the first decade of the 21st century, my dad, a recognized firearms expert and author, acted as a special docent for tours of the museum’s W.A. Jones Collection of Ancient Weapons. Though he was a mental freak down to the smallest fact and had served as a professor and professional editor, Dad tried to level with the common man and connect with him in a way I hope to in my writing here. When I was fourteen or so, he brought me a poster from the museum featuring photos from the macabre Belle Gunness murders that took place in LaPorte, including an image of a severed head presented by the authorities on a shovel during the trial of an accomplice. I loved it!
Gunness started killing around 1890. By the following year, the county was rife with speculation regarding a new courthouse, as well as her deeds, but there was some chance the courthouse would be built in nearby Michigan City. See, LaPorte had a population of 7,126 in 1890 per the US Census8, while Michigan City had grown to 10,773 people, an increase of 46.3%. By 1908, Gunness was suspiciously dead from a fire at her homestead, as were her children. The story is gruesome, and I encourage you to google it! But despite the carnage in town, officials concluded that LaPorte was more centrally located and built the courthouse we see today there, though Michigan City saw their own Superior court building constructed later in 1909. What’s the difference between a regular court and a Superior court? Today, there’s really not one. LaPorte County -along with Elkhart, Lake, and Porter- have both main and satellite courthouses today to soak up all of the judicial needs of their localities.
Now, after spending time anthropomorphizing the LaPorte County Courthouse by means of a severed head on a shovel, it’s worth mentioning that none of those other courthouses I just mentioned look much like a human, albeit one with a single eyeball. Sometimes my proclivity towards giving courthouses human features is annoying! But I, as well as you and the rest of the human race, can’t help it. According to the website PsychCentral, the same brain regions that cause us to think that way are the ones at work when when we copy an action done by someone else. We come by it honestly! Predicting the same results of interacting with an animal or something inanimate stems from the same place of interacting with a human.
Despite that all, there are a few things I struggle with, though. An 1971 addition of a new jail, along with a new, secured, northern sidewalk to it has altered the makeup of the courthouse square, as has the addition of a US-35 addition directly southwest of the complex. Though access is improved to LaPorte’s northern end next to Pine Lake, the character of downtown LaPorte has probably suffered. I’m sure the overpass brings more traffic downtown, which is great. But nevertheless, it’s a defining characteristic of the city’s downtown, to its detriment- especially when there’s a great courthouse like this one already anchoring things.
I’m fine with continuing to anthropomorphize our state’s courthouses, and I’m very glad that my brain’s never assumed that the LaPorte County Courthouse was going to smack me in the face after I photographed it. All said, this is a truly unique courthouse among its peers, and one that stands with full regalia in my top five list of Indiana courthouses. If you make it up to LaPorte, I encourage you to see it for yourself. I really love this one- cyclops or not.
LaPorte County (pop.111,281, 16/92)
LaPorte (pop. 22,010)
Cost: $328,000 ($8.73 million in 2016)
Architect: Brentwood S. Tolan
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Modified Shelbyville Square
Height: 3.5 stories
Current Use: Courts and county offices
1 “LaPorte’s courthouse offered live entertainment” The Northwest Indiana Times [Munster]. Lee Enterprises, Inc. December 31, 2016. Web. Retrieved August 17, 2019.
2 National Register of Historic Places, Clinton County Courthouse, Frankfort, Clinton County, Indiana, National Register # 83000039
3 “Sandstone” Minerals Database. Minerals Education Coalition. 2019. Web. Retrieved August 17, 2019.
4 Ross, Doug “Laporte County Courthouse, Part 2”. YouTube. December 30, 2016. 6:04. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=265&v=8l3M1p0FHmw, August 17, 2019.
5 Daniels, E.D. “A Twentieth Century History and Biographical Record of LaPorte County, Indiana” Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. Print. Retrieved August 19, 2019.
6 “La Porte County Historical Society, Inc. and its Museum” La Porte County Historical Society. Web. Retrieved from https://laportecountyhistory.org/about/#board. Web. Retrieved August 19, 2019.
7 “Laporte County Courthouse” Indiana Historical Bureau. Indiana.goc. Web. Retrieved from https://www.in.gov/history/markers/417.htm. Web. Retrieved August 19, 2019.
8“Population and Housing Unit Estimates”. United States Census Bureau. Web. Retrieved August 18, 2019.