A version of this post originally appeared here on March 9, 2018.
This just in, America- we’re over-retailed! Indiana’s first enclosed shopping mall, in Anderson, closed two years ago; Marion’s moribund Five Points Mall finally shut down aside from its three stores with outside entrances; the Muncie Mall lost three of its four anchors; and Dick’s is leaving Washington (Scare) Square. It’s been a rough couple of years. In Anderson, there was even a scheme to flood the entire area of town where the mall and main commercial strip sat1! Unfortunately, being over-retailed, like being overweight, means you have to make some cuts to drop the excess- it’s no fun. Below are some of the excess stores I’ve bumbled across in central Indiana. Out of consideration for your breakfast, I will not show you any photos of my own excess stores. At least not without a shirt.
But what do all these dead malls and stores have to do with a courthouse in New Albany? A lot, actually. Downtowns across the state faltered as suburban growth in the 50s and 60s pulled people away from city centers and redefined the concept of the business district. The advent of the enclosed mall played a huge role in that phenomenon, and it’s ironic that the trend seems to be reversing. All over Indiana we hear about effective downtown revitalization efforts, and unsurprisingly, the Indiana Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission attributes a lot of that success to the presence of a historic courthouse as an anchor to downtown, encouraging nearby development that takes advantage of the sense of place and history2. No anchor, and the surroundings crumble. Just like with our dying malls.
I’m not suggesting that we put the circuit court next to the food court, and I’m definitely not advocating for a Von Maur in the clock tower. But the situations are similar- fifty or sixty years ago, the money followed the people, and the people were flocking to the burbs. Downtowns did not thrive. To some county officials, an old courthouse represented an antiquated ideal no longer suitable for the atomic age. Such was the case in New Albany, where efforts to replace an outgrown 1867 courthouse, city hall, and jail finally came to a head in 1959 after failed attempts in 1926 and 19483. The situation had gotten so bad that, when a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post came to New Albany for a 1957 story, he couldn’t find the courthouse- he kept driving past it, thinking it was a deserted warehouse4!
Spurred by new state legislation that provided for local building authorities, officials demolished the entire block of historic buildings and erected what Governor Matthew E. Welsh called “obvious evidence of their faith in the future of their own community5.” As the first city-county building in Indiana, the 70,000 square-foot building housed the combined government functions for, you guessed it- Floyd County and the city of New Albany.
Although the city lost a lot of history, it did get the development boom that local officials pined for. A new bank, a new savings and loan association, and a new parking lot all sprung up around the building. Uncle Sam even got in on the action when the feds built a new courthouse and post office across the street. It’s ironic that the same type of development is found today through the preservation of a historic courthouse, not the demolition of one. But it happened, and it served as a wakeup call to officials in Delaware County6, who toured the building with hopes of replicating its success in downtown Muncie7. Not to be outdone, officials in Madison County visited the new city-county building as well. They needed a modern government building too and weren’t about to be outdone by their neighbors to the east8.
It might look like your run-of-the-mill middle school or post office today, but the courthouse that officials toured in 1961 was an outstanding, four-story structure of concrete and glass. Really, it resembles a lot of the modern courthouses found in Michigan. Atypical among Indiana’s, the building utilizes a curtain wall system where the façade is non-structural; the walls don’t bear the weight of the building. In Floyd County’s case, the east and west walls of the courthouse transfer lateral wind loads to metal framing members, which are anchored to the building’s concrete structure. The use of a curtain wall was a practical choice by the courthouse’s architects- lighter, cost-reducing materials can be used, more light gets into the depths of the building, and sway due to high winds is reduced- all important considerations for county officials.
Aesthetically, aluminum mullions span the height of the building and vertically separate the tinted windows and infill panels. Scalloped porticos that gave off a distinctive Asian vibe shield the recessed north and east entryways. I have no idea why the architects chose that motif –it’s absent from a lot of their other work, including the Indiana University Southeast campus down the road- but I like it.
Maybe the reason they chose that look for the entrances was because of how well it plays with the building’s most prominent features, three enormous medallions that adorn the building’s east front and straddle the top two floors. The medallions trumpet, from left to right, the City of New Albany, the New Albany-Floyd County Building Authority, and Floyd County itself. Rendered in, for lack of a better term, a pinched-square shape, the medallions are affixed to thick, brassy cables that anchor them to the building’s foundation and roof.
All of these elements, including columns from the old courthouse, combined to create a building that was respected enough to be listed among Indiana’s best new building architecture in 19638. Although the courthouse may look dated now, New Albany’s city center is anything but, featuring a riverfront amphitheater and greenway, new luxury apartments, and a thriving cultural scene. The courthouse is undoubtedly modern, but at 59 years old it’s actually eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Starting in the late 1960s, a lot of cities in Indiana- Huntington, South Bend, Muncie, Richmond, and Anderson to name a few, tried to fight the effects of suburban sprawl by turning primary downtown thoroughfares into meandering pedestrian malls. each of these attempts was a dismal failure, and most of them had been torn out by the 1990s. Because Floyd County planned ahead, its officials didn’t have to resort to such extreme lengths to lure people back downtown; they were already there. Nor did officials have to scramble to find a plan to revitalize a mortally ill downtown like the rest of the towns.
Back in Anderson, their executive director described the Mounds Mall’s closure as “not a setback,” but rather as “part of the inevitable journey forward as we look at how retail is going to make that complete circle and come back to the downtowns, come back to the cores of the communities9.” Exactly. I don’t think downtown New Albany is prospering today because their modern courthouse serves to anchor it. Instead, I think that proactive commissioners, sensing an impending economic migration to the suburbs, acted fast and with foresight to prevent that from happening. In my travels, I’ve found that the communities that were slow to react, or quick to misfire, missed out- maybe for good. If downtowns across the state continue to remain vital and thrive at the expense of suburban sprawl, I’m all for it. Sorry, malls. But thank you, Floyd County, for the example set by your courthouse.
Floyd County (pop. 76,244, 21/92)
New Albany ( pop. 36,803)
Cost: $2.4 million ($19.21 million in 2016)
Architect: Walker, Applegate, Oakes, & Ritz
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 4 stories
Current Use: City/county offices and courts
1 “Mounds Mall, Indiana’s first enclosed mall, to close April 1 after 54 years” The Herald Bulletin [Anderson] March 1, 2018. Web. Retrieved 3/8/18.
2 “Indiana’s Historic Courthouses”. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
3 “New Albany Builds Remedy for Decay” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] July 9, 1965: 1. Print
4 Seidl, Gregg. New Albany. Charleston. Arcadia Publishing, 2006. Print.
5 “New City-County Building Dedicated” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette]. October 18, 1961: 43. Print
6 “New Albany ‘Cure’” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] July 9, 1965: 3. Print
7 “Leaders Tour New Building” The Anderson Herald [Anderson] June 5, 1962: 1. Print
8 “Indiana’s Best in Modern Building Architecture” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis] September 22, 1963. 32. Print
9 “Anderson Mounds Mall to close April 1” rtv6. The E.W. Scripps Co. 2018. Web. Retrieved 3/8/18.