St. Joseph County- South Bend (1969-1971)

I meant to have had this ready by Monday. Sorry about that!

The County-City Building sits just south of the 1858 courthouse. The first floor features an outdoor patio underneath a cantilevered block of county offices. The names of each township are listed on the building’s west front.

Mayor Pete’s been in the national news lately more than any other Indiana mayor in the past fifty years. That means South Bend, the city that bestowed Pete’s title, has too. On TV, South Bend just can’t get any respect, starting with its size and ending with its crime. But from where I sit, it’d be hard to call the place a small city, though my chair isn’t as comfortable as the ones on the Good Morning America set. South Bend is a big place, though- particularly for Indiana. It’s our fourth-largest city. 

I did some digging into how many cities there are in the country. The United States Geological Survey recognizes 35,000 cities and towns, out of which 19,249 actually have municipal governments. If we arbitrarily remove those communities with fewer than 10,000 residents, we’re down to 4,000 “cities” as recognized by the USGS1. That’s a lot. 

South Bend’s 101,860 people ranks it as the country’s 306th-largest city. Based on the paragraph above, that’s enough people to put it in the 93rd percentile of cities in the country. Seems big to me- just to go there and you’ll see what I mean- it’s got an actual skyline! It’s not a great baseline, but downtown South Bend alone has eight buildings that top a hundred feet tall and six of them do by wide margin.

Jutting up 196 feet, South Bend’s second-tallest building is the County-City Building, Mayor Pete’s domain. Even though South Bend’s home to two old courthouses that still house the county courts, today we’re going to talk about the least interesting one, the County-City Building. I didn’t intend to include this in the project, so we’ll have to make do with photos that feature it only incidentally. Who knows- maybe this will be fun.

Here’s the 1855 courthouse again. The County-City Building looms in the background.

First, a quick history: The original seat of St. Joseph County was planned to be at the town of St. Joseph, located at “the portage of the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers2” as designated by the state legislature. By 1831, government moved to South Bend, where a brick courthouse was quickly built two years later. It stood until 1854. Despite replacements in the following year2 and 1898, county officials were ready for a dedicated city-county building as early as 19264. But a variety of issues held up construction for a combined building until someone flipped a switch around 1965. A few disagreements still lingered, but plans were solidified by 1967: There’d be a new County-City Building in South Bend.

Initial drawings by architects Maurer, Van Ryn, Ogden, & Natali, Inc., called for a 14-story skyscraper and connected jail built from aluminum, glass, limestone, and brick. While the jail would take up the building’s basement and extend to its fourth floor, the tower itself would contain city and county offices, with the mayor’s suite at the top5. Building everything, as well as giving the 1898 courthouse a substantial renovation to house, well, the courts, would take $8.9 million. But the county only had $6.9 million. 21-year bonds covered the shortfall, though, and ground was broken on May 6, 1967 at a ceremony where 100 participants dug into the earth with gold-covered shovels. Nine high school marching bands played at the commencement, which featured a speech by the chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. 

The 14-story glass and aluminum tower stands a hundred feet above the apex of the 1898 courthouse. The Tower Building, built in 1929, stands to the right.

Many downtown businesses were enraptured in their support of the new structure, though Robertson’s Department Store was particularly vocal. “We urge everyone to attend this [groundbreaking] ceremony,” they said in a huge newspaper ad, “for we feel that this new County-City Building is more than just a new building. It is the symbol of every man’s faith in the growth of South Bend and the catalyst which will spark further building and rebuilding. Robertson’s looks forward with the rest of our community to the great expectations turned up by these first spades of earth6.” 

As grandiose as their sentiment was, Robertson’s copywriters were earnest in their optimism. Many around town shared that opinion as a small sliver of hope during a turbulent decade. Through the early 1960s, more than half of South Bend’s jobs were in manufacturing7. But disaster struck in 1963 when local stalwart Studebaker ended automobile production at its sprawling campus there, ushering in a period of economic downturn that’s lasted a very long time. Per the Census, more than 30,000 people have exited South Bend since 1960, nearly a quarter of its peak population. Had the population stayed the same, South Bend would today be the 210th-largest city in the US.

In the face of economic collapse, The County-City Building project ushered in substantial new development downtown. Soon after it was topped out in 1968, another 14-story building -the St. Joseph (and later Key) Bank Tower- was erected. The following year, Robertson’s still wouldn’t shut up about the progress made downtown, taking out another ad that read, “Our new County-City Building will serve as a symbol of the Downtown South Bend that is to be -thanks to the imagination, ingenuity, and not so common common sense of dedicated people8.” 

From left to right: The County City Building (and it’s underground ramp that provided jail access), the current and former St. Joseph County Courthouse, and the 1970 Chase Tower, now renovated and known as Aloft South Bend and home to a hotel and residences.

By November of 1969, the first nine floors of the building, along with the jail wing, were ready for occupancy. In order to start the $1 million renovation of the 1898 courthouse, areas on the sixth and ninth floor of the new building were temporarily converted to courtrooms. For two years, the County-City Building served as the St. Joseph County Courthouse, which qualifies it to be listed here, I guess.

Though the project wasn’t yet completed, our friends at Robertson’s probably rhapsodized again in 1970, when the 25-story American National (later Chase) Bank tower was finished. No doubt the three new, multi-million dollar skyscrapers helped stanch the city’s bleeding as best they could. Later efforts to do so, though, namely the disastrous River Bend Plaza project that turned five blocks of Michigan Street into a pedestrian plaza, failed spectacularly9, and probably contributed to Robertson’s eventual closure during the 80s.

Shortly after Chase Tower was done, the rest of the County-City Building was finally completed. Once the revamped courthouse -essentially a brand new building within its existing walls- was dedicated next door in November of 1971, the courts moved back, ceding their spaces to the county health and welfare departments that they’d displaced10 and ending the new building’s time brief time as the St. Joseph County Courthouse. It soon became obvious that the jail, originally designed for 80 inmates, was too small. After several expansions, it moved in 2001.

Here is the only photo I took with portions of the 1855 courthouse (left), the 1898 courthouse (middle), and the former jail wing of the 1971 County-City Building (right).

Now, a variety communities have more than one old courthouse. As I mentioned, South Bend has two, and they’re even in the same downtown block as the County-City Building. So why’d I choose to write about this one? Well, to tell the truth, I’ve been dealing with a severe depression over the past two weeks that’s had a greater-than-normal impact on my productivity. I was already four days late for my deadline here, and was looking for a building I could quickly cough up a few words about, with only a few photos to edit. This one seemed to fit the bill, so I started. 

But it wasn’t to be. Halfway into the post after most of my research was done, I realized that the County-City Building didn’t have any county courts in it, unlike similar structures in Madison, Marion, and Floyd Counties, and that it only did during a brief period. Oops. 

The 1971 St. Joseph County-City Building in South Bend.

I didn’t want to have to start over, and I’d already found more photos that had the building in it. 1500 words later, here we are. Maybe this post will help set the stage for when we talk about the 1855 and 1898 courthouses- I’m hoping to get back into the swing of things on Monday. Although this final sentence massively understates the intricacies of bipolar depression along with rust belt economies, I think it works. I might be going through a slump, but just like South Bend, don’t count me out just yet. Now- back to the recliner I go.

TL;DR
St.Joseph County (pop.363,014, 5/92)
South Bend (pop. 101,860)
Built: 1971
Cost: $8.9 million ($52.7 million in 2016)
Architect: Maurer, Van Ryn, Ogden, & Natali
Style: International
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 196 feet
Current Use: County offices
Photographed: 3/19/16


1 “How many cities or towns are there in the United States?” Colleen Wren. Quora. February 8, 2018. Web. Retrieved 9/19/19.
2 Enyart, David. “St. Joseph County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
3 “A Look Back: 1855 Courthouse in South Bend has had many uses” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 2, 2018. Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
4 “Groundbreaking Ceremony Held” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. May 6, 1967. 1. Print.
5 “Officials Approve County-City Plans” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. March 6, 1967. 9. Print.
6 Men at Work Community on the Move” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. May 5, 1967. 18. Print.
7 Indiana Business Review “ASouth Bend/Mishawaka – Elkhart/Goshen.” Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
8 “Dear South Bend” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. December 11, 1969. 22. Print.
9 “A Look Back at River Bend Plaza” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. March 7, 2016. Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
10 “County Units Set to Move” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. October 24, 1969. 4. Print.

Author: tcshideler

When I'm not driving around, drinking fountain pops, and taking photos of county courthouses, I like to perform and record rock music in my band, spend time outdoors fishing and camping, read, and watch pro basketball and hockey.

5 thoughts

  1. I’m South Bend born and raised, and even though I haven’t lived there in any capacity since 1988 I still call the place home. Peter Nemeth was mayor in the early 1970s when, my misty memories suggest, we made a school field trip to the County City Building. Roger Parent was mayor in 1985 when, my clear memories attest, we made a school field trip to the County City Building and — because my teacher was also on the Common Council — we got to go up to the mayor’s office and meet Mr. Parent.

    I have made but one photo involving the County-City Building:

    List of Townships

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    1. I was all ready to ask what the list of names was about in this picture. My question was halfway written when I figured it out – St. Joseph County’s Townships! I love the photo.

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      1. Jim, I’m an ardent reader of your blog and recall some posts about your time in South Bend that really stand out to me. Very cool to get to meet the mayor. I too took several tours of Delaware County’s (dumpster fire of a) Justice Center several in Elementary and High School, and even met the former mayor, Dan Canan.

        This is a great photo. I wish I’d taken some time to go around all three of the courthouses more than I did- my dad lived in Elkhart and I usually stayed in South Bend or Mishawaka when visiting him as an adult. One thing I remember from my research deep in the South Bend Tribune was that the letters here were originally colored a bright shade of yellow that was polarizing, to say the least, from a scan of period opinion pages. Maybe it was redone later, or maybe the color has faded. It doesn’t seem as bad now, though. It matches the color of some louvers and vents at the building’s fifteenth story, used for mechanicals.

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  2. It seems that smaller cities in Indiana that relied heavily on manufacturing have had difficulty regrouping after that manufacturing has gone away. I count Anderson in this group and will put Kokomo there as well if Chrysler ever pulls up stakes. It is interesting that they waited until the area’s biggest employer was gone before really moving ahead on expensive municipal buildings.

    This is an interesting mashup – many places have replaced old courthouses with modern buildings and many have kept their old courthouses. SB seems to have done both (with a really old one kept as a spare in case of emergencies?)

    I think you hit this one right on – there were courts there for a couple of years and they could easily have stayed there if things had gone a little differently.

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    1. There were some recurring references to Muncie and Anderson in this post that I deleted in order to keep it under control. Namely, late 1960s county buildings that spurred on some level of downtown development in the face of a collapsing local economy, the conversion of swaths of downtown to plazas that led to the demise of several long-time downtown stores, and some smaller ones. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens in Kokomo and if they’d respond to a Chrysler closure with a similar attitude.

      It is intriguing that the three buildings of wildly-different styles still exist on the same block. The old-old courthouse was under private ownership for about ninety years before it was renovated for use as a traffic and misdemeanor court. Part of the renovation to its newer cousin was to expand and reconfigure its layout in order to house an expanded court system. I have a post about the 1855 building geared up for Monday, and am working on one for the 1898 structure.

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