Columbus is home to an impressive amount of great architecture- it almost has to be in order to live up to its nickname, “the Athens of the Prairie.” Notable mid-century and modern architects I.M. Pei (the 1969 Cleo Rogers Memorial Library), Elier Saarinen (1942’s First Christian Church), his son Eero (the 1957 Miller House and 1964’s North Christian Church), Kevin Roche (the 1970 Columbus Post Office), and Harry Weese (1958’s Hamilton Center Ice Arena and the 1961 First Financial Bank in Eastbrook), among others, have all contributed to the city of 44,000 people’s inventive skyline. Architect Isaac Hodgson got into the mix too, adding to the county seat’s array of buildings long before it became popular. He’s who we have to thank for the majestic Bartholomew County Courthouse, finished in 1874.
Hailed as the “finest in the West1” once completed, the building is the county’s fourth. It took the courthouse a while for public opinion to get to that heralded sentiment, though. Bartholomew County was founded in 1821, and originally, courts met at John Parker’s house on Haw Creek. Commissioners set the county seat up at Tiptonia, named after General John Tipton who donated its land. Later that year the town’s name was changed to Columbus, which pissed Tipton off enough that he left, never to be seen again2. It took several years and three other private dwellings before the county built a permanent courthouse, but it was completed -a square, two-story structure with a central cupola- in 1831. That only lasted eight years before the county requisitioned prominent architect John Elder -the designer of three other Indiana courthouses before he, too, fled the state, never to be seen again, to to design a replacement. Elder’s problems don’t seem to have resulted from any slights he received: He ran away to escape creditors he stiffed during his courthouse project3 in Rushville. Another brick building, though larger than its predecessor, Elder’s courthouse served Bartholomew County for thirty-one years.
By 1870, commissioners considered Elder’s courthouse “dilapidated, crumbling, and unsafe,4” and sold it off for $350. Yet despite its clear shortcomings, replacing the old structure was met with opposition. “Though the old courthouse was frail in its structure and forbidding in its aspect,” proclaimed one contemporary history, “it required as much courage to resolve on the construction of a new building and to enter on the execution of that resolve as to meet an embattled and hostile enemy of the field.”
Oh well! Commissioners moved ahead anyway, hiring one of the most prominent designer of Indiana courthouses, Isaac Hodgson, to draw up plans for its replacement. An irishman born in Belfast, he immigrated to New York at 22 and moved to Louisville in 1849, the following year. By 1855, he was practicing architecture in Indianapolis and eventually designed six Indiana courthousest5 as a charter member of the Indiana Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Four of those six remain in Martinsville, Vernon, New Castle, and, of course Columbus. Of those that were demolished, the monstrous Marion County Courthouse demolished in 1962 was probably Hodgson’s magnum opus, though what he left behind is still impressive.
The Bartholomew County Courthouse is certainly remarkable in a vaccum, but it’s even more profound since it exists amongst all of those mid-century modern buildings scattered around Columbus. Shaped like the letter L, the building’s clock tower makes up its elbow. Pardon me if you feel otherwise, but I think the tower is obviously the building’s most notable feature, and it spans three stories above the main roofline. Starting from top to bottom, the clock faces are iron framings with an infill of white glass, unusually mounted directly onto the tower’s roof. Immediately under an entablature and curb, six open-faced arches allow the building’s six-inch thick, one-ton bell to be heard6. Below that level, a single, narrowly-angled window bay connects the tower to the rest of the courthouse’s roofline- one that has been substantially altered over time. The original slate roof was replaced with standing-seam copper in 1953, and the courthouse’s dormer windows -a focal point of most Second Empire architecture- were removed as well. The wrought iron cresting we see atop the current roof is a facsimile7.
Aside from the roof alteration in 1953, considerable renovations took place in 1928 and 1968, after commissioners contemplated spending between $5 and $7 million to replace the thing entirely. Thankfully, the building was spared as it became clear that renovating it would cost far less-, just $625,000.
Nearly all of the 1967 changes were performed inside the building’s walls, which were largely removed inside to change the layout by increasing office and storage space by 32%. Assembly rooms for commissioners and the county council were carved into the previously-underutilized third floor, along with new space for the treasurer and auditor in the basement. In addition, the renovation added new plumbing, electrical, and heating systems; remodeled courtrooms; a new staircase, and a new hydraulic elevator8. That new elevator proved particularly problematic during its early years9. I originally thought the semicircular tower at the building’s south face was built to house that elevator, but it’s original- there’s a spiral staircase10 inside.
Despite all the renovations, today the courthouse looks pretty much the same on the outside as it did when it was built. Though costs were obviously a factor, officials’ decision to keep their historic courthouse says a lot about this community’s appreciation of notable architecture, especially since most of our modern courthouses were built around the same time that the majority of Columbus’s famous buildings were. Though another renovation occurred in 1975 to make room for a new county court, I’m grateful for the foresight of Bartholomew County’s citizens and officials. Indiana retains a great portfolio of historic courthouses- 85/92 counties have at least one.
Maybe the most popular way to get to downtown Columbus is over the Robert N. Stewart Bridge, an impossible-to-miss cable-stayed structure that transports Second Street (IN-46) over the Flatrock River. Two notable buildings are visible straight away from the bridge: The 162-foot tall First Christian Church, and the 100-foot tall Bartholomew County Courthouse. Along with the 192-foot postmodern spire of the North Christian Church just out of view from that approach, the structures make a compelling case for Columbus having one of the most notable skylines across from Indiana despite the short stature of most of its buildings. Though mid-century and postmodern examples of architecture permeate the city’s downtown, the 135-year old Bartholomew County Courthouse still stands in the “Athens of the Prairie” just as its precursors in Greece due- through solid management, a series of purposeful internal renovations, and a local appreciation for architecture.
Bartholomew County (pop. 82,753, 18/92)
Columbus (pop. 47,143)
Cost: $225,000 ($5 million in 2016)
Architect: Isaac Hodgson
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 154 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Tamara Stone Iorio, Columbus, Indiana: In Vintage Postcards (Arcadia: 2005), p. 20. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “St. Joseph County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/6/19.
3 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/6/19.
4 ”Courthouse has always been focal point of county” The Republic [Columbus]. September 13, 1966. 31. Print.
5 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-0-253-33638-5.
6 “Indiana State Historic Architectural and Archaeological Research Database (SHAARD)” (Searchable database). Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. Retrieved 10/6/19.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Bartholomew County Courthouse, Columbus, Bartholomew County, Indiana, National Register # 79000031.
8 “Courthouse Real Bargain at $225,000” The Republic [Columbus]. May 15, 1969. 17. Print.
9”Elevator Will Run” The Columbus Herald [Columbus]. August 23, 1968. 4. Print.
10 “Image 4 of Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Columbus, Bartholomew County, Indiana”. Library of Congress. congress.gov. Web. Retrieved 10/6/19.