Owen County- Spencer (1911-)

The 1911 Owen County Courthouse in Spencer.

We’ve discussed the trickery, manipulation, and outright violence that the pioneer residents of many of Indiana’s early towns participated in to win their communities the title of county seat. We’ve also talked about how those first counties were divided up into smaller areas -and more counties- as the Indiana Territory progressed towards statehood. Often, changing demographics based on geographical splits meant that the county seat needed a physical relocation towards more a centralized area to better serve the majority of its constituents.  

But what if your seat was already in the middle of the county? What if your county was in the middle of the country? Well, that’s where Owen County residents found themselves during the 1920 census, which reported that the official center of population for the United States was at a point eight miles south-southeast of Spencer,  the county seat1. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case- changing population trends now put the ‘National Mean Center of Population’ near Plato, Missouri. But still- Owen County got its fifteen minutes of geopolitical fame. Well, a decade at least, until the next census.

Owen County’s doughboy statue stands at a prominent, northwestern-facing section of the courthouse square.

That census finding wouldn’t be the last of the fame, or notoriety, the area would receive. Even though the country’s population moved, the source of many of our storied monuments stayed the same. Ever heard of E.M. Viquesney? He’s from Spencer, and he sculpted the pressed copper statue The Spirit of the American Doughboy, in honor of veterans of World War I, that later became extensively mass-produced2. Holding a rifle in his left hand along with a hand grenade defiantly clutched to his right, the doughboy statue was extremely popular during the 1920s and 30s- more than 150 were created. Today, Indiana alone is home to eleven of them, most on courthouse squares. In fact, Viquesney himself helped dedicate Owen County’s example in 19273. Today, that statue stands on the northwest corner of the courthouse square facing the corner of Franklin and Main. The west side also features an Owen County War Memorial built into the the retaining wall that surrounds the square4. 

The armadillo-like dome sets this courthouse apart from its other neoclassical peers.

As recently as last week, we called out a big chunk of Indiana’s neoclassical courthouses built around the turn of the 20th century. The three-story Owen County Courthouse in Spencer fits that description as a blocky, limestone-veneered building with tall pilasters and a restrained selection of entablatures and parapets. On their own, those elements aren’t necessarily unique. What is, though, is the building’s enormous dome- it’s huge! Anyone drawing the building from memory, like I did as a kid, would probably start there, at the top. Then we’d run out of paper.

The ribbed, octagonal dome -housing an original Seth Thomas clock at each of its four faces- was constructed of wood decking and steel beams. It’s sheathed in copper. Over time, its appearance has changed: originally, it had windows, which were covered with galvanized metal sheets in 1983. Painted gold in an attempt to match the dome’s original color, a study was made in the 1980s to open its windows and replace the copper to restore it to its previous, greenish, hue5. As far as my eye can see, that hasn’t happened yet.

Pilasters and horizontal rustication demarcate the building’s primary entrances.

Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of the large dome on a flat roof gives the courthouse an anomalous appearance in comparison to the rest of our state’s. Below it, the courthouse rises three stories with each of its faces designed in an analogous manner. The north side of the courthouse, which faces a narrow parking lot and rail line, has traditionally been the building’s main entrance, five bays wide across all three stories. Here, a central door is flanked by two narrow sidelights, approached by a small staircase and modern entrance ramp. The three, central bays project slightly from the rest of the building and feature squared-off pilasters, rectangular windows, and banded rustication above its first floor. Those are details all common to its peers from the second and third decades of the 20th century.

Despite its age, the courthouse today remains very close to its original design, although the windows were replaced in 1992 and, as we mentioned, the dome was changed. Inside, the building’s bizarre (read: eclectic) mix of Classical Revival and Arts and Crafts styles feature iron balustrades, square pilasters, marble, and decorative elements dictated by geometrical lines. The basement has almost always been used for storage and the building’s mechanical infrastructure, though it’s now home to the county archives. Close to the judge’s office next to the third-floor courtroom is a door that leads to a cramped, iron staircase that spans the full height of the building- from the basement to the roof and dome. Like I said, infrastructure and hidden elements satisfy a natural interest for me: I have no greater urge than to see what hides behind any locked door- a problem within any governmental building from the Spencer County Courthouse to Area 51! The courtroom itself is more ornate than any other room in the building, including the lobby and other public areas. While old courthouses commonly feature ornate courtrooms, few take it to the extreme juxtaposition that Owen County’s does. Columns that measure twenty feet tall support the room’s high ceilings, while ninety-nine folding oak seats with iron embellishments provide seating for spectators. At one point, a dumbwaiter provided access to documents from the clerk’s office, though, unfortunately, it’s not functional anymore.

I’ve said time and time again that I approach each of the courthouses I go to as a tourist, focusing on the architecture and what’s visible from the street; that’s my basis. I’ve never been into politics or the law, but from an early age I was engrossed in our county’s courthouse architecture. Despite all that, when I made it to Owen County it was impossible to consider the architectural ramifications of the courthouse there. The weather was overcast that day, and the atmosphere was heavy with what seemed like a sea of sullen, low-hanging clouds. The day before I arrived, charges were filed against Kyle Parker, a 22-year-old who after a night of drinking, abducted his friend’s 14-month-old daughter, sexually assaulted her, and strangled the toddler, cravenly leaving the body by a tree near Gosport8. It was a monstrous, horrific crime, and Parker was tried in the third-story circuit courtroom of the old building. Eleven months later, justice was served- he received 60 years in prison7. Beyond simple architecture, courthouses -and the events within their walls- provide due process for their constituents. It might not have been totally sunny the day that Parker was sentenced, but I hope that some of the clouds that I noted while little Shaylyn was awaiting justice in 2016 cleared up shortly afterwards.

The main entrance of the Owen County Courthouse, with its modern ramp, was utilized heavily during the 2016 trial of Kyle Parker.

I know the weather doesn’t work that way, and I know my hope for it to have in the wake of a fourteen-month-old’s horrific death is a little flowery. But so are the architectural elements of many of our historical courthouses. Maybe, to some extent, we try to conceal some of the bad that is addressed within these buildings- Spencer native8 Viquesney’s statue of the doughboy certainly glosses over the horrors of World War I, and Owen County’s brief status as the center of the country’s population certainly wasn’t indicative of the center of its murders.

 A few weeks ago, I was at the Delaware County Historical Society while some members were reading the graphic descriptions of a bus crash in an 1895 newspaper. Heads and brains were scattered over here, the paper said, and a finger was found three hundred and fifty feet away. You’d never find that in a paper today. Our society has, to large extent, glossed over the horrifying elements of our day-to-day human travails. 

Despite the architecture of our courthouses, they’re here for one main purpose- to provide for the administration of justice. That happened eleven months after I visited the community.

Yet those who are in the thick of those scenarios -our coroners, our funeral home lackeys; our judges, lawyers, and jurors; and, most importantly, our victims, often find themselves right in the center of the graphic proceedings. To many, a courthouse is just a place that houses the courts- there’s too much going on already with each specific trial to appreciate the structure for anything beyond a place to see justice served. That’s perfectly acceptable. But thanks should go to our forefathers who made sure that they all served, regardless, as landmarks. The Owen County Courthouse in Spencer is definitely one that fits both bills. 

TL:DR

Owen County (pop. 21,201, 67/92)
Spencer (pop. 2,250)
72/92 photographed
Built: 1911
Cost: $106,000 ($2.72 million in 2016)
Architect: Jesse T. Johnson
Style: Neoclassical
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 75 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed 3/27/16


1 “Geography Program” United States Census Bureau. 2010. Web. Retrieved 10/17/19.
2 Greiff, Glory-June. “Remebrance, Faith, and Fancy: Outdoor Public Sculpture in Indiana”. Indiana Historical Society Press [Indianapolis]. 2005. Print.
3 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Owen County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 10/17/19.
4 Enyart, David. “Owen County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. October 18, 2019.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Owen County Courthouse, Spencer, Owen County, Indiana, National Register # 94001351.
6 “Owen County man to be sentenced for toddler’s murder” Fox59 [Indianapolis]. February 26, 2017. Web. Retrieved 10/17/19.
7 “Kyle Parker receives 60 years in prison for kidnapping, murder of 1-year-old Shaylyn Ammerman” RTV6 [Indianapolis]. February 27, 2017. Web. Retrieved 10/17/19.
8 “History” Sweet Owen Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc. Owen County, Indiana. Web. Retrieved 10/18/19. 

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. Those ornate old courtrooms are becoming an endangered species. Busier caseloads require more courts and those big old courtrooms with seats for lots of spectators (from back before there were movie theaters to entertain people) have donated space for smaller additional courtrooms. And don’t get me started on the dropped ceilings with fluorescent lights hung in them – a favored trick in the 50s-60s.

    Not all of the courthouse action is as grisly as the case you cite. I was once there on a case involving about 8 or 10 head of cattle that escaped when a flatbed truck tipped over in an intersection. It would have been little more than a harmless story had the police chief from another city not hit one in the middle of the highway a couple of nights later. I can only imagine an 1890s news account of that one. 🙂

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    1. Oh wow, that story would have been unreal! If it had occurred in the 1830s, there’d likely be pioneers rioting with cannons, canoes, and pitchforks. Depending on the county, maybe barges.

      Regarding the changing courthouse interiors: I had been aware of that phenomenon for some time but was thrown into a small crisis when I went to Defiance, Ohio to take photos of their recently remodeled building. The exterior had been decimated in the 50s and was pitiable by any standard. Though it doesn’t represent the original configuration much at all nowadays, an effort was made a few years ago to gussy up its exterior. I thought it was great! Until I saw those old, tall windows subdivided into multiple floors. I know the Grant County courthouse in Marion is the same, and I know that Delaware County’s was torn down partially due to an unusually thick set of walls that didn’t lend themselves to an easy reformat.

      So despite outward appearances to the contrary, a vast number of our courthouses have been irreparably altered inside. To address this, I’ve had to go back and consider where I’m coming from -a tourist driving past them and judging their external impact in accordance with their surroundings- as well as with their utility. You have helped me a lot with that respect.

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  2. This is a great project, and one that I’ve thought about doing for some time.

    I’m also an attorney. Many years ago I had the goal of trying a case in very county in Washington State. Now I’m much saner than that! Too many local rules!!

    But with your blog as an inspiration, I think I’ll start getting after a similar project here in Washington State.

    Do you do federal courthouses? what about district court houses? Municipal courthouses? So many possibilities and offshoots.

    I found your site from Jim Gray’s nice summary. Here: https://blog.jimgrey.net/

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    1. Thank you! And thanks to Jim for bringing you here. I would love to see a similar project in Washington take place- I think it would add a lot to the collective knowledge of these buildings and, personally, help me interpret our midwestern ones even better.

      I started with county courthouses and branched out to superior courthouses with an emphasis on old ones. Whenever a historic courthouse is absent, I’ve done their modern replacements, which are often easier to research. I confess that modern judicial centers that hold the actual courts while a historic building contains county offices don’t really interest me in most cases.

      I would love to branch out to federal courthouses and old jails and sheriffs residences. That will probably be phase two as I slowly run out of county courthouses in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and the surrounding areas to cover. I’m a non-traditional college student paying my way through the system at 29, so for now I’ll gladly take what I can get.

      Jim’s blog is a daily reader for me. His summary of my efforts was very thoughtful. I’m eager to see what may come from you! Thanks for checking this out! I’m interested in returning the favor.

      Liked by 1 person

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