The 1890s brought a lot of architectural changes to American society. For one, Second Empire -a French style that prioritized mansard roofs and elaborate, finicky ornamentation- was falling by the wayside. The Richardson Romanesque mode, one that incorporated fortresslike massing and rounded arches, was also going the way of the Dodo by the decade’s latter years. In their place came something called Beaux Arts.
Popularized by the World’s Columbian Exposition (also called the Chicago World’s Fair or the “White City”), Beaux Arts brought order, symmetry, and formal design back into the fold while retaining some of the ostentatiousness of its predecessors. Eventually it gave way to neoclassicism among Indiana’s courthouses, but several Beaux Arts examples still exist. One of the best is South Bend’s St. Joseph County Courthouse, started in 1896 and completed two years later.
I’m pleased to say that advertising revenue from this site has finally provided me enough money to pay for a packet of ramen noodles. Through a series of trade-ups, I’ve managed to obtain a time machine as well as an official Courthousery bumper sticker so we can all go back and look at some of our state’s old courthouses together. Now, despite its flux capacitor and plutonium reactor, the time machine works only in linear fashion. In order to talk about the 1898 building, we’ve got to jump past it back to St. Joseph County’s earliest days, 1831 to be exact, though there’s no restriction on how much time we have to spend there. Good thing, since I already discussed it twice.
In 1831, a town, itself called St. Joseph, was planned to hold the functions of local government at “the portage of the St. Joseph and Kankakee rivers1”. It took but a year for local officials to reverse their course, though, and by 1831 the county seat had been moved to South Bend, where commissioners and clerks took up residence in the houses of several local settlers. Soon, though, a new courthouse was needed. Peter Johnson built it for $3,000 as a hipped-roof, two-story building with a cupola that rose three levels2. It lasted until 1854, when a new building -today’s “old” St. Joseph County Courthouse was constructed. Let’s hop back in the time machine -oops, don’t hit your head on the gull-wing door there- and briefly check it out.
The 1855 courthouse may have lasted longer than its 44 years if industry hadn’t come to South Bend. Studebaker, later a long-standing car manufacturer, had outgrown its humble roots and even provided President Benjamin Harrison with a full set of carriages for the White House3. The company kept growing and it was apparent that South Bend would need new governmental facilities to keep up with the area’s expanding industrialization. Though an 1873 addition to the old courthouse helped some, its Greek Revival style and limited floorplan was outmoded for the number of people it was forced to serve. Commissioners began planning a replacement in the mid 1890s. Back into the time machine we go.
Construction on the new courthouse began in the fall of 1896. Designed by Chicago architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, their Beaux Arts influence is evident nearly everywhere across the building’s exterior. Made of limestone atop a granite foundation, the courthouse stands two stories tall (plus an attic and raised basement), reaching 96 feet tall at the apex of its large, tiled dome4. Overall, the building is configured in a cross pattern, and four large pediments supported by rectangular pilasters define each point of the cross. The eastern pediment frames a clock surrounded by ornamental carvings, and the overall impression of the courthouse is of a smaller version of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, itself a remnant of the World’s Fair. Today, the building might be overwhelmed by the scale of the towers that surround it, but remember- we’re still in 1896 and none of those exist yet.
Despite the structure’s beauty, as early as 1926 local officials began contemplating a unified building to hold all of the city and county’s combined offices5. Nothing happened until 1965, when plans for a 14-story County-City Building and million dollar renovation of the “new” courthouse took shape. Though most of the exterior would remain the same, the building’s guts would change substantially in order to keep up with the county’s demands. Officials hoped it would be able to serve for thirty more years before its usefulness was outlived6.
By November of 1969, its first nine floors of the County-City Building were ready for use, so county courts moved into its sixth and ninth stories temporarily as construction proceeded on the five floors above and started up in the courthouse itself. The situation wasn’t pretty- the cramped building needed a lot of work.
Though most of its old offices would move to the new County-City Building to free up space, a new law on the books for 1972 meant that the building would be responsible for housing a much larger superior court structure than it was designed for by absorbing the city courts of both South Bend and Mishawaka. A new satellite courthouse in Mishawaka at Lincolnway and Spring would handle some of the overflow (damn, I missed that one), but South Bend’s three courtrooms would still need expanded to five, including one carved out of the basement. The area needed sealed, its windows permanently covered.
Upstairs, the courthouse’s four entrances were reduced to two. North and south entrances were closed, an entryway with a hydraulic elevator was added to the structure’s west side facing Lafayette Street, and two tunnels were dug to ferry prisoners between the courthouse and the new building. Furthermore, the rotunda -once filled with cubicles and a coffee station- was emptied and restored to its original splendor, helping more with navigation.
Like many renovations of old buildings, this one didn’t go completely to plan. For starters, contractors discovered that the old floor system had been improperly and unsafely constructed, particularly on the second floor where the two primary courtrooms were. A new one had to be built7, which was a problem. See, while the renovation was originally meant to keep as much of the second story’s historic decoration, the rebuild meant that only the courtrooms’ oak back benches and moldings were retained, since architects estimated actually restoring the old fixed furnishings would cost twice as much as replacing them.
Despite the problems, the redesigned courthouse -featuring all-new wall-to-wall carpeting; globular lamps; walnut, cherry, oak, birch, and pecan paneling; a new, lit, stained glass rotunda; and brand new layout opened on July 25, 1971. While the newspaper decreed that the renovations gave the building a “stately air”, the eye-catching red and blue carpets were described by residents in terms ranging from “gaudy,” to “turn-of-the-century courthouse,” and even to “early bordello”. Furthermore, the unfamiliar sound of the new hydraulic elevator led several patrons of the building’s grand reopening to remark that they were “being flushed8”. Oh well-can’t please everyone I guess.
Anyway, now that the building was back up and running, its “thirty years of usefulness” clock was ticking. In an uncommon act of reciprocity between courthouses, the very structure this one displaced in 1898 came to its rescue. Though it’d been used privately for the past century, 1998 brought a $4.7 million renovation9 that enabled the “old” courthouse to lighten the load of the “new” one by taking over traffic and misdemeanor courts. Today, both historic structures house the courts of St. Joseph County (along with that stupid modern one in Mishawaka), while the rest of the county offices occupy the 1969 County-City Building next door.
I realize now that I got to blathering on for so long that we never got back in the time machine to advance back to 2019, and what’s more, we’re out of plutonium! Even worse is that I left the Mr. Fusion I bought in 2015 at home. Deloreans were never known for their trunk space anyway. Hmm… Stranded without power in front of a courthouse? I think I’ve seen this movie before. It’s even looking a little cloudy today- if I can run some wire from the clock down to that traffic light on Washington Street, maybe we’ve got a shot to get out of here after all. If not, that brochure of World Series winners in the glovebox might come in awfully handy.
St.Joseph County (pop.363,014, 5/92)
South Bend (pop. 101,860)
Built: 1898, renovated 1971
Cost: $250,000 ($7.18 million in 2016)
Architect: Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 96 feet
Current Use: Some county courts
1 Enyart, David. “St. Joseph County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
2 “History of St. Joseph County, Indiana.” Chas. C. Chapman & Co [Chicago]. 1880. Print.
3 The Presidential Carriage Collection at Studebaker National Museum. Web. Retrieved 9/28/19.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). St. Joseph County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 9/28/19.
5 “Groundbreaking Ceremony Held” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. May 6, 1967. 1. Print.
6 “Courthouse Work Could Be Delayed” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 19, 1970. 95. Print.
7 “Courthouse Remodeling to Be Finished in Spring” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. November 15, 1970. 32. Print.
8 “Renovation Gives Courthouse Stately Air” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. Holy 24, 1971. Print.
9 “Old Courthouse renovations nearly done” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. August 11, 2000. 8. Print.