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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Owen County (pop. 21,201, 67/92)
Spencer (pop. 2,250)
Cost: $106,000 ($2.72 million in 2016)
Architect: Jesse T. Johnson
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 75 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
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.