It slices! It dices! We’re not talking about the Ronco Veg-O-Matic, though- today, we’re talking about Elmer Dunlap’s pen. Before he designed his own courthouses in Delphi, Rockport, and Petersburg, the architect was responsible for substantial additions and renovations to courthouses in Brookville and Brownstown that resulted in massive changes.
Yes, he slices, he dices- in teeny, tiny slices. He makes mounds of masonry in just seconds. Wouldn’t you love to greet your friends at the door with lovely courthouses like these1? Despite his neoclassical leanings and later, more sedate, designs Dunlap’s two refreshed structures, particularly the Jackson County Courthouse in Brownstown, are unique entries in our state’s courthouse portfolio. And I sort of like them, especially given their quirks.
The current courthouse has quirks aplenty, not all of them necessarily Dunlap’s doing. Depending on your perspective, its either the county’s fourth or its fifth courthouse. Originally built in 1870 as an early example of Second Empire courthouse architecture, the building replaced Abel Findley’s 48×32 foot courthouse built back in 1835. Two previous courthouses, a 24×24 log building later moved to be used as a school, church, and barn. A later, 40×40 brick structure preceded that one2, solidifying the 1870 structure as the county’s fourth. Although some county records refer to Findley’s 1835 courthouse as the fourth, it’s likely that they referred to temporary meeting locations like a tavern or homes in Vallonia, an earlier settlement. Today, there’s not much to Vallonia- there’s certainly no courthouse. What’s left is a small block of buildings along with the old high school gym, former home of the Red Birds high school basketball team.
To alleviate any confusion that uncertain early records might add to our conversation, we’ll call the current courthouse the fourth. Or the fifth, actually. David Bolen’s 1870 courthouse was large- three brick stories with contrasting quoins, stone courses, and heavy massing that implied an Italianate influence. Measuring ten bays long by three bays wide3, the courthouse was capped by a mansard roof, four brick chimneys, and an understated, wooden cupola4. As an important upgrade over its progenitors, the courthouse also featured a new steam heating plant5. Even so, it cost a paltry $45,370 to build, far less than its peers in the 1870s (the Henry County Courthouse, built a year before, cost nearly three times at much). With that lack of much of an initial spend, it only took about forty years for the building to become obsolete. That die was cast by 1910, and that’s where Elmer Dunlap came in to play.
It’s possible that Dunlap was merely trying to appeal to the frugal nature of the county commissioners who’d authorized such a cheap courthouse years prior, but there may be some truth to the notion that, as a start-up architect who hadn’t designed any of his own courthouses yet, he was trying to grow into doing so, since his later structures belie his restrained designs. Whatever the reason, Dunlap proposed that the county heavily retrofit the old building but retain its core. So they did.
I don’t have a postcard of the previous Jackson County Courthouse, but if you click here you’ll see several thanks to Keith Vincent of North Carolina, who’s collected and and posted thousands of courthouse postcards for all to see on his website, Courthouse History. Take a look at the first four postcards there. I dare you to try and find that structure within what we see today! My best guess is that Dunlap added Neoclassical wings onto the length of the building and extended them slightly beyond the original building’s walls to form a recessed entrance framed by groupings of columns- in fact, Dunlap modeled the building’s entryway after that of the Franklin County Courthouse in Brookville, which he was finishing up around the same time6. The mansard roof seems to have given way to a hipped roof along the original portion of the building, surrounded by flat roofs on each wing. Obviously, he shifted the roof ornamentation from a teensy cupola in the middle to a large, squared-off clock tower that rises 100 feet above the ground below7, along with a pyramidal cap that really defies anything I’ve ever seen on a courthouse before. I love it!
I mean that I love remembering it through old photos, since it’s not there anymore. During the summer of 1959, a series of storms destroyed the clock tower and ruined much of the building’s interior. Once lightning struck, the building burned unnoticed for more than 45 minutes during a brief thunderstorm around 2:05 p.m, according to when the clock’s hands stopped moving. At 2:50, a post office worker sounded the alarm. Three counties worth of firemen were called, but it wasn’t enough- they were later joined by some from Vallonia, Crothersville, Scottsburg, and Columbus since winds made the effort tough. Most of the clock fell from its perch to the building’s empty third floor attic. The witness room was also damaged, as well as the stained glass rotunda, which was smashed by falling wreckage and then inundated by water. After the fire had been extinguished, a huge crack appeared in the probate clerk’s office, and water filled the basement, home to offices of the surveyor and county extension. Pumps were rushed to the scene in a timely manner, though, and no permanent damage was recorded8.
Reconstruction began later in 1959, at a cost of $95,0009 to restore the tower and interior. While the plan called for the ruined rooms inside the courthouse to be fixed up, the county left off the wooden cap of the clock tower, choosing to truncate it in order for the next lightning strike to be more manageable. Because of that, the clock tower has a flat roof today. More obvious is the change in the color of brick a third of the way up the clock tower- that’s where it was rebuilt. Ronco, Elmer Dunlap, and lightning aside, the courthouse has been sliced and diced in many ways.
“Set it and forget it,” is what I always say! No, I’m not talking about the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, I’m talking about our old courthouses! I hope each of them can withstand a few minor alterations, though the romantic in me wants them to stay as originally intended. I know that’s not possible, but if only counties could understand what makes a historic courthouse valuable, they might be quicker to build annexes off-site and keep the old buildings as is, regardless of cost. Unfortunately, Jackson County’s courthouse in Brownsburg was not a Ronco proposition- setting it and forgetting it would have allowed a massive fire to demolish the building! Maybe Popeil’s Mr. Microphone could have come in handy here, broadcasting the courthouse fire to locals on the short-range. If that failed, maybe several hundred Ronco smokeless Ash Trays could have helped alleviate the fire. Maybe a gigantic version of Popeil’s special flavor injector turkey baster could have assisted with impregnating water the fire with water! At any rate, despite how Elmer Dunlap sliced and diced his way through the previous Jackson County Courthouse, we’ve got a good one left in Brownstown. Just ignore the flat roof, and any fires.
Jackson County (pop. 43,466, 33/92)
Built: 1870, remodeled in 1911.
Cost: $65,000 ($1.29 million in 2016)
Architect: Elmer E. Dunlap and Marshall E. Van Arman
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Current Use: Some courts and county offices
1 Hagedorn, David. “The Veg-O-Matic: It slices and dices as well as it ever did, which means not well at all.” The Washington Pot [Washington, D.C.]. October 29, 2013. Web. Retrieved 1/8/2020.
2 Enyart, David. “Jackson County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/8/20.
3 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 1/8/20.
4 John Blumenson, Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945 (New York: W W Norton & Company, 1981), 68.
5 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Print.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Jackson County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/8/20.
7 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. 1916. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 1/7/20.
8 “Temporary Repairs Under Way At Fire-Damaged Courthouse” The Tribune [Seymour]. July 2, 1959. Print.
9 ”Work On $80,303 Project Set Soon” The Tribune [Seymour]. November 21, 1959. Print.