I’ve learned a lot about Indiana’s historic courthouses after driving around and haphazardly taking pictures of all of them. One of the most interesting little tidbits I’ve picked up is that it seems as though building a 165-foot-tall clock tower was just about the pinnacle of architectural engineering during the late 1800s, at least around these parts. I can name five or six courthouses that stood that tall off the top of my head, along with all kinds of shorter ones. In fact, our state’s history is littered with tales of hubristic, self-taught architects who flew too close to the sun (I’m looking at you, J.C. Johnson) and had to deal with collapsing structures.
It took a certain degree of structural ingenuity to get a taller courthouse, one that only a few counties were special enough for. Courthouses in LaPorte (172 feet) and Greenfield (181 feet) are two examples, but what about those that surpass the threshold of 200 feet? Are there any? Unfortunately, another thing I’ve learned about these old buildings is that its often hard to get an accurate idea of their actual height. Sanborn fire insurance maps are a good place to start, but in some cases they deviate substantially from what other sources, like National Register of Historic Places applications prepared by local historians, say. Getting a good impression of a building’s height often involves triangulating information the best I can from a variety of reputable sources.
Nevertheless, I’ve managed to cobble together a list of Indiana’s 200-foot-tall courthouses. They’re rare, making up about 6% of our portfolio- even counting the 1962 City-County Building in Indianapolis which rises 372 feet. Sanborn maps seem to indicate that its demolished predecessor hit 280 feet1, making it by far the tallest in the state. Of those still standing, the list goes like this:
- Allen County- Fort Wayne: 239 feet.
- Tippecanoe County- Lafayette: 226 feet.
- Vanderburgh County- Evansville: 216 feet.
- Tipton County- Tipton (bizarrely): 206 feet.
- Vigo County- Terre Haute: 200 feet.
The subject of today’s post, the Vigo County Courthouse in Terre Haute, brings up the rear of the the club, measuring right at 200 feet. Even though it’s at the tail-end of the 200-foot grouping, there is really something special with this courthouse- just look at it. Of course there’s also something about hitting that arbitrary milestone that just interests the hell out of me!
Clearly, Terre Haute didn’t always have a two-hundred-foot tall courthouse. Its first was a brick structure of the “coffee mill” design built in 1822, four years after the county was formed. Starting in 1866, county officials used what was first meant to be an office building to hold court while the actual courthouse was renovated, but the project fell through and the “temporary” structure served as a third courthouse for twenty-two more years2.
Construction began on the present courthouse in 1884, once county commissioners hired Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford to render some plans. Professionally doodling buildings on blue paper since 1857, Hannaford was ultimately responsible for more than 300 structures, most around his hometown though he later designed courthouses in Greene, Washington, and Monroe counties in Ohio that differ substantially from Terre Haute’s. Of those three I’ve been to one, the Greene County Courthouse in Xenia, pictured above, is widely different in execution.
Actually, a quick review of Hannaford’s other courthouses reveals that none of his others are even remotely close to his Second Empire design in Terre Haute3. Maybe that’s intentional4– French explorers did settle the area during the 1700s, describing its location above the Wabash River as the “highland,” which Terre Haute translates to. Back then, this part of Indiana was claimed by both the French and British and considered to be the border between Canada and Louisiana5. Regardless of his influences, though, Hannaford really put together a masterpiece here, which is saying a lot since he also designed Cincinnati’s Music Hall, City Hall, Elsinore Arch, and Cincinnattian Hotel6.
Here’s what we have in Terre Haute: The courthouse is roughly cruciform from the top and stands three stories tall above an elevated basement. That basement features rusticated stone with rectangular windows, though the second floor has arched windows in pairs and the third offers tall, rounded-arched windows with prominent keystones7. Entrance to the building is gained through a pavilion at the center of each face, which include flat-roofed porticos, Corinthian pilasters, and a convex dormer. The building was originally built with four monumental staircases, though today only one remains, at its eastern, primary facade facing US-41. Aside from featuring porticoes without a means of entering them, the loss is minimal. Overall, the effect of the building is similar to its larger cousin further down 41 in Evansville. Or, it would be, if it wasn’t for that great, gilded dome!
The dome, along with a small cupola perched above it, caps a three-tiered, octagonal tower that rises from the top of the building’s center, giving it much of its two hundred feet of height. We started this post talking about the height of the courthouse, and we’re going to finish it that way! Here’s what it’s like, along with how to get to the top.
You’ll start in the raised basement underneath the rotunda, where some murals depicting the county’s history greet you. Next you’ll go to what’s now the second floor, where you can see the antique clock that kept time in the clock tower up until 2011. Proceed up some marble stairs and you’ll be at the courthouse’s third floor, which has a great view of the rotunda, above and below. It’s a step up from the third floor to a back hallway towards a bare, metal stairway to reach the first part of the tower, where you’ll get a good look of the stained glass daisy that caps the dome from above. If you’re following along from an exterior photo, we’re now at the lowest part of the tower, the segment with the triple-arched windows. Inside is unfinished brick, and most of them have names and dates carved into them. Don’t look down, by the way- most of what you’re walking on here is just wooden slats. Until you get to the next metal stair, at least.
“BY HIS WILL $500. OF THE COST OF THIS BELL WERE PRESENTED BY FRANCIS VIDEO, VIGO COUNTY IND. A.D. 1887.” These stairs curve, but go around that final angle and you’ll see the bell that Vigo bequeathed with that embossing after his death in 1836. It’s interesting to note that the bell never swings; it’s struck by a swinging hammer, the original. It was designed that way.
One more ladder will take you to the clock faces, though its original works have been moved downstairs. Until only nine years ago, someone had to climb up all those stairs to come up here when the clock fell back! Here, the curved nature of the dome really shows its presence, and the stairwell up to the cupola above begins to look more like a ladder. At the top, you’ll see a trap door marked “Dome Sweet Dome8.” Climb out and feast your eyes on Terre Haute from 200 feet. You will get blown away, along with blown around. It’s windy up there!
I wouldn’t have a problem climbing up there, but getting down would be another story: I once walked a short rail trestle in flip flops and nearly soiled myself. Whew- I haven’t even been on this tour and I’m exhausted describing it! If you want the nitty gritty, be sure to visit The Haute on YouTube, where you will be taken on the same tour I described, but via high resolution video. I strongly recommend its uncommonly in-depth description of one of our best Indiana courthouses.
Terre Haute is lucky to have one of five historic courthouses in the state that clear two-hundred feet, and I’m glad that we have a video that shows it in great shape from stem to stern. Though we’re running out of courthouses to talk about here, I’m hoping to eventually set up some articles and videos of a similar nature. We’ll see, but until then- let’s enjoy the Vigo County Courthouse as a true gem in the capital of the Wabash Valley.
Vigo County (pop. 108,291, 17/92)
Terre Haute (pop. 61,025)
Cost: $500,000 ($13.3 million in 2016)
Architect: Samuel Hartford
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 200 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. Indianapolis. 1898. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 1/5/19.
2 Enyart, David. “Vigo County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.
3 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Vigo County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.
5 The Road from Detroit to the Illinois 1774. In Michigan Pioneer and History Collections, V10 p. 248. Archived March 21, 2008. Web. Retrieved 1/5/19.
6 Stephen C. Gordon and Elisabeth H. Tuttle (11 December 1978). “National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Samuel Hannaford & Sons Thematic Resources in Hamilton County”. National Park Service.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Downtown Terre Haute Multiple Resource Area, Terre Haute, Vigo County, Indiana, National Register # 83000160.
8 “THE VIGO COUNTY COURTHOUSE”. The Haute. YouTube. January 2, 2018. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.