Big parts of Lake County aren’t very welcoming places right now, the case in point being Gary. Though it’s made big strides to overcome its reputation over the past few years, the city has lots of work ahead yet. Its continued status as the nation’s third leader in annual murders per 10,000 residents doesn’t help its welcoming status much1.
There, I’ve done it- I’ve resigned Gary to being a suboptimal place to stay. Well, it is! Anyone from Indiana is familiar with the story of Gary, the city whose fortunes rose and fell with those of the steel industry. I’m not really qualified to tell the place’s tale, but I can say that since the 1960s Gary’s population has fallen by nearly 100,000 people while other towns in Lake County have grown due largely to white flight, with tons of people leaving abandoned schools, hotels, civic properties, and businesses in a state of abandonment and destruction. It’s a tragedy of urban development.
My plan was to get in and out of town as fast as possible. I’d loved to have hung out and explored the city for a while longer, but I’d need a place to stay the night. All I found was a series of dwindling choices: Gary’s old Holiday Inn on the Dunes Highway is abandoned and decaying as it has for forty years since the adjacent I-65 and 80/90 interchange was reconfigured2. More recently, the blighted fourteen-story Sheraton downtown that closed in 1984 finally came down just a few years ago3, as actually a great accomplishment for the city. Even Merrillville -the Fishers of Lake County- got into the bulldozing act last year by tearing down its long-running Radisson and the nearby Star Plaza Theatre4.
If the old Sheraton had been there for me to stay at with a flashlight and knapsack, the abandoned high-rise would have provided me a great view across Broadway towards an impressive example of Indiana architecture, Gary’s Lake County Superior Courthouse. Along with the old Memorial Auditorium, City United Methodist Church, Union Station, and the Palace Theatre (all standing in ruins), the courthouse is part of what gives Gary its feel. The fact that it’s actually usable and in good condition makes it even better. You’ve probably seen it, along with its architectural twin, the Gary City Hall, on your way to Chicago.
First things first, though: Gary’s not the seat of Lake County. As we discovered last week, that honor falls to Crown Point. In the late 1870s, work began there on a monumental courthouse that officials hoped would serve as a long-term home for the county’s offices and courts. It didn’t really turn out that way. Although Crown Point’s new courthouse was finished in 1880, the ensuing decade brought stratospheric growth to a different town seventeen miles northwest. The name of that town? Well, you take a guess.
Traditionally a crossroads, this other community -directly abutting Lake Michigan with ample access to its fresh waters- was the perfect location for a transplanted Michigander to establish a new meatpacking plant right next to the railroad5. Soon, the town took the name of its most prominent citizen and was catapulted into several years of stratospheric growth. By 1890, Hammond, named after George Hammond the meatpacker, was nearly three times as large as Crown Point, per the census.
Yet despite the shift in population, commissioners were understandably hesitant to move the county seat. They’d just spent three years and $52,000 on a new courthouse, after all! But thankfully, a compromise came in 1895: Hammond residents got a second county courthouse, and Crown Point kept their existing structure. It’s unclear where court was first held in Hammond, but a $77,000 Richardson Romanesque courthouse designed by J.T. Hutton was erected in 19036.
That building, along with a subsequent addition in 1910, lasted until 1974 when it was demolished to make way for a parking lot7. Today, a 1972 structure three blocks south houses the Lake County Superior Court in Hammond. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of it, and I’ll probably never make it back up to Hammond to take a photo of it. Its brief, Crimson Permanent Assurance-style commandeering of this post will have to do, so long as I get to show off my old postcard of the 1903 courthouse, visible above this paragraph.
The same population explosion that occurred in Hammond later happened elsewhere in Lake County at the behest of industry. In 1906, The United States Steel Corporation chose another spot with Lake Michigan frontage as the site of its enormous new plant, the Gary Works, and established a factory town around it. Both the plant and the town were named after Elbert Henry Gary, the founding chairman of the steel works. 1910 was the first year that his settlement showed up on a census, with a population of 16,802. After ten years of operation, it’d climbed 230% to 55,378. In 1930, more than 100,000 people called Gary home. The place was a big deal, dwarfing both Crown Point and Hammond by a wide margin, so county officials decided to build yet another superior courthouse there.
Gary’s Lake County Superior Courthouse was completed in 1929, along with its nearly-identical city hall and new Gateway Park to the north of the government complex, all part of Gary’s new, city-beautiful design (the park even featured two reflecting pools to show off the gold-colored domes of the courthouse and city hall). Like I said, by the following year, more than a hundred thousand people called the city home, and the throngs of steelworkers finally had a worthy courthouse to do business in.
The superior courthouse in Gary spans three stories tall and is topped by a central saucer dome on an octagonal drum that features square windows. At its main facade, Doric columns in antis, or in line with the building’s walls, feature prominently across its northern face. The City Hall across Broadway features a slightly different configuration, with flanking wings with stepped parapets and a square drum that supports its own shallow dome, but for most (including me on first glance), the differences are negligible.
Both were designed by J.T. Hutton, as was the earlier superior courthouse in Hammond. In recent years, both Gary’s city hall and courthouse have seen the removal of their original entryways, though it hasn’t dramatically reduced the scope of their design. Furthermore, anthemions -or a pattern of radiating pedals- were also removed from the courthouse some time ago, replaced by several rows of steel siding, visible above the building’s second story8. Despite that, a banded laurel-and-eagle motif survives just below the structure’s roofline, and four carved urn patterns still project from between the central windows of the third-story windows along with a wreath motif below the aluminum.
Let’s step back from the courthouse though, literally. Behind it, between the courthouse’s shared green space with the Genesis Convetion Center, is the Fusion sculpture, a three-story monument designed by Chicago artist Omri Amrany to celebrate Gary’s centennial that represents the most vibrant piece of its downtown puzzle. A mix of bronze, granite, glass, and steel, the installation uses a 30-ton ladle from U.S. Steel, two 9-foot bronze steelworkers, 50 pieces of cast glass flames, and granite butterflies representing Gary’s rebirth. Assembled in 20069, the sculpture is like nothing I’ve seen before. It’s really breaktaking, defying its surroundings and embodying something that residents can take serious pride in, along with the nearby courthouse that serves as a backdrop- even if Gateway Park’s reflecting pools have long since dried up.
Ultimately, I’m not qualified to write the definitive history of Gary’s successes and struggles in a post about the courthouse architecture I found there- I’ll leave that to its stakeholders. I was there for an hour, as a tourist. What I am qualified to discuss, though, is the final Lake County Superior Courthouse that I almost forgot, a modern one in East Chicago just east of Gary. Built in 1979, the Judge Lorenzo Arredondo Justice Center10, which I’ll also probably never make it to, is a two-story red brick and glass structure with a weird cantilevered wing and a diagonally-projecting curtain wall. It’s an interesting, functional, modern courthouse.
When I look at all of Lake County’s courthouses in a vacuum, though, the two old ones in Crown Point and Gary do me just fine. Those are what we’ll feature here, and now that we’ve spent two straight weeks up in the region, we’ll be sure to head south next time.
Lake County (pop.491,456, 2/92)
Gary (pop. 78,450)
Cost: $1,000,000 ($14 million in 2016)
Architect: J.T. Hutton
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 88 feet
Current Use: Some government offices and courts
1 “The 30 cities with the highest murder rates in the US” madison.com. Lee Enterprises, Inc. April 15, 2019. Web. Retrieved 8/31/19.
2 McDonald, John. “Holiday Inn [Gary]. Lost Indiana. April 1, 2001. Web. Retrieved 8/31/19.
3 “Demolition of Gary’s Sheraton Hotel Almost Complete” CBS Chicago. October 14, 2014. Web. Retrieved 8/31/19.
4 Pete, Joseph S. “Star Plaza site redevelopment plan hailed as ‘game changer’ The Northwest Indiana Times [Munster]. Lee Enterprises, Inc. October 4, 2019. Web. Retrieved August 31, 2019.
5 “Profile for Hammond, Indiana” ePodunk. MH Sub I, LLC. 2007. Web. Retrieved August 31, 2019.
6 Enyart, David. “Lake County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2019. Web. Retrieved August 31, 2019
7 “Lake County Views: Hammond – Courthouse” Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society. 2008. Web. Retrieved 8/31/2019.
8 National Register of Historic Places, Gary City Center Historic District, Gary, Lake County, Indiana, National Register # 94001352
9 jaholst. “Fusion Sculpture – Gary, Indiana” Enchanted America. August 12, 2014. Web. Retrieved August 31, 2019.
10 Deacon, J. “Lake County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved August 31, 2019.