The works of beloved poet James Whitcomb Riley, the folksy Hoosier who wrote “Little Orphan Annie,” “The Raggedy Man,” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin” are timeless classics. Unfortunately, despite or because of the thousand or so poems he penned during his lifetime, the man was often too drunk to perform, causing a national scandal in 18881. In defiance of his reputation, Riley stands at the ready in front of the Hancock County Courthouse in Greenfield, posed to give his next reading. He’s represented here by a statue, of course (his corpus is interred at the top of Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis), but at least he showed up in some manner, drinks be damned.
I get that, though I was never a big fan of Riley’s, even if I’ve always been a fan of Indiana courthouses, particularly the old ones. Whether the frost is on the punkin or not, Greenfield’s courthouse is one of our state’s tallest at 181 feet- good for sixth in my book. The structure was also the first -and only- courthouse in the state I ventured into during my project to photograph all of them!
About a decade ago, I decided to become a licensed minister through the Universal Life Church of Sacramento, California, joining such religious luminaries as Adele, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen, Conan O’Brien, and Steven Tyler in a ministry that only demanded that I “do only that which is right.” I drew a mental Venn diagram of my life and figured I’d done just that, so I joined- for free. But I needed more, so $30 and a few days later, I was shipped an identification card and a ministerial certificate, along with some junk I threw away, just like when I was accepted to the honors society in college. A few years later, an old friend asked me to perform her wedding ceremony in a park in Greenfield. It was an intimate event, and afterwards I had to deliver the paperwork to the courthouse. I was promptly refused entry for having my phone in my pocket so I didn’t manage to take any photos inside. Offhand, though, I remember the building being beautiful, with two sets of double staircases, though an entry checkpoint marred the visuals as it does in many of our old courthouses. But at least they manage to survive.
Hancock County was founded in 1828, and the following year, Jared Chapman built a two-story log courthouse somewhere away from the platted square for $195. I always thought Jared was a millennial name, but we learn something new every day. In 1834, John Hays (a man with quite a traditional name) built a 40×40 coffee mill courthouse on the square for $3000, but two 20×28 wings were added in 1845 by builder Nathan Crawford2. Though Greenfield initially consisted of a spate of retail and homes around the courthouse square, travel increased along the National Road -now US-40- during the 1850s and 1860s. It was soon time to develop a new courthouse, and local officials hired a master- in 1856, the commissioners of Hancock County threw caution to the wind and brought in the renowned Edwin May, designer of nine Indiana courthouses, to draw plans for a replacement after his successful designs in Suillivan, Brookville, Liberty, and Shelbyville. Today, only three of his courthouses still stand- Brookville’s (though it’s been altered beyond May’s specifications), Greensburg’s (a tree grows out of its tower), and Vincennes’ (completed in 1876). May started the design of the 1879 Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville, but was quickly fired and replaced by J.C. Johnson3. Via a brick building consisting of two stories with a bell tower, May’s courthouse soon established the town square as the focal point of the community.
Around this time, commercial activity continued to shift towards Main Street, and when natural gas was discovered as part of the Trenton Field in 1887, Greenfield had to accommodate new structures. Businesses quickly sprung up4, expanding the town like no other event before. Today, tons of buildings from the era of 1880-1920 are still visible among US-40 and IN-9, especially around their crossroads where the courthouse sits. Around this time, James Whitcomb Riley started giving reading tours around Indiana. In 1880, he was invited to perform at Asbury University, after which he signed a ten-year contract to give more speeches elsewhere5.
Unfortunately, May’s courthouse didn’t last through the turn of the century. In 1896, commissioners brought Fort Wayne architects Wing & Mahurin in to the fold, and they charged the county $242,600 to design a new courthouse to be built by Geake, Henry, & Greene. Plans for the structure were accepted by October of 1895, a cornerstone was placed in September of 1896, and the county took possession of the structure on January 1, 1898. As we’ve discussed previously, George Wing was T.J. Tolan’s chief draftsman until Tolan’s son Brentwood took over, and Marshall Mahurin was a younger draftsman under Tolan, who defected along with his elder. Along with the courthouse in Greenfield, the duo finished up the Starke County Courthouse in Knox that same year, going on to assist Brentwood Tolan with Fort Wayne’s incomparable courthouse completed in 1902. Later on, Mahurin, along with his nephew, designed the Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington, along with Auburn’s DeKalb County Courthouse and the 1909 superior courthouse up in Michigan City, LaPorte County.
Wing & Mahurin really threw out all the stops in Greenfield, though- the building is massive. Essentially, it takes a symmetrical plain while the central tower -yes, the one that measures 181 feet high- has a high, hipped roof, rock-faced stone facing and details. and four clocks. Each of the building’s faces have central bays accentuated with two-story piers and finials, a pointed wall dormer, large towers, stone string courses, and a plethora of window types. Designed around several gabled blocks, the north elevation, as the building’s primary facade, has two round towers that frame a central roof projection. A large entryway stands apart from the main structure and connects the two towers, adding real depth to the north side, a feature not found often in our courthouses. The south elevation is similar, but doesn’t have any rounded towers- though it does contain a large entablature across the peak of the doorway arch. Here, square, stone chimneys rise above the roofline to flank the building’s central bay. The east and west elevations are identical, carrying several motifs from the north and south sides, though abbreviated. Underneath it all, the courthouse sits on a raised, rusticated basement.
Wing & Mahurin also designed another building in downtown Greenfield, the city’s old high school, built in 1895. Two and a half stories tall, the building featured a four-story tower along with architecture similar to the courthouse. With eleven classrooms not he first and second floors and six more in the basement, the school was a proud structure, even though it didn’t contain modern amenities like an auditorium, cafeteria, or gym. In 1926, a replacement was built, though Wing & Mahurin’s building was still used until 1981 as an elementary school. That year, architects started redesigning the building into apartments, but a fire at the end of April, 1985 took it down completely6. Only the building’s triple entrance arches were saved, and they now frame the front of the main office for the Greenfield-Central School Corporation. The arches are visible at 110 North Street, in Greenfield, if you’d like to go see them.
If you go to Greenfield to see the arches of the old school, you’ve definitely got to go see the courthouse; I mean, really- you can’t miss it. Grotesques in the form of dogs, monkeys, and whatever else will try to keep you from entering without an invitation7, though I made it in just fine without a sword, chainsaw, or my phone (the second time I tried to enter) to fight them. In May of 2019, the courthouse clock got new hands, with workers replacing the old wooden ones with eight custom-made aluminum hands along with a new electric motor8. That fix completed, the Hancock County Courthouse in Greenfield is now in perfect shape to welcome visitors- whether Riley’s Little Orphan Annie’s come to your house to stay or not.
Hancock County (pop. 71,575, 22/92)
Greenfield (pop. 21,249)
Cost: $242,600 ($6.97 million in 2016)
Architect: Wing & Mahurin
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 181 feet
Current use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 8/18/15 and 3/13/16
1 “James Whitcomb Riley”. Indiana’s Largest Four Day Festival. Riley Festival. Web. Retrieved 1/7/19.
2 Enyart, David. “Monroe County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
3 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Greenfield Courthouse Square Historic District, Greenfield, Hancock County, Indiana, National Register # 85000455.
5 Crowder, Richard. Those Innocent Years. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company. [Indianapolis] 1957. Print.
6 Greenfield Educational History – May 2012. City of Greenfield Indiana. 2019-20. Web. Retrieved 1/7/19.
7 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Hancock County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/7/20.
8 Middelkamp, Ben. “Courthouse clock gets its new hands” The Daily Reporter [Greenfield]. 3/9/19. Web. Retrieved 1/7/19.