The old Vanderburgh County Courthouse and I go way back- to 1995, to be precise. That’s only twenty-five years ago of course, but that’s about 83% of my life! It was the first old courthouse I’d ever been inside, and boy did it make an impression on me.
My parents divorced in 1993 when I was three and for a long time money was tight. But that summer, mom scraped together enough to take us on a mini-vacation day trip down to Evansville to explore the Mesker Park Zoo. I remember dropping my Fisher Price camera in the pond (ruining it) and I swear I remember a giraffe wrapping its tongue around my brother’s head like a big old lollipop. I was busy grieving my broken camera to be sure, but according to the Evansville Courier & Press, one of the zoo’s giraffes, Kiah, is twenty-nine years old this year. Maybe she holds the answer as to what really happened that day!
Exotic creatures aside, my mom knew about my interest in architecture and always worked to cultivate it. After the zoo, we stopped at the old courthouse for a tour. It blew my mind! From the pink scagliola of the probate courtroom to the gold trim and moldings of the old superior court, I instantly fell in love with the place. If all that wasn’t enough, above story after story of circular railings was an impossibly tall stained-glass dome that capped the building’s rotunda. It was epic.
Though my interest in our state’s courthouse architecture waned by my teens and early college years, I serendipitously discovered the definitive text about the subject, Counts’ and Dilts’ The Magnificent 92 sometime in my early 20s. I ordered it and was immediately disappointed. Though the book’s Vanderburgh County spread briefly mentioned the old courthouse and showed a full-page photo of its old judge’s bench, both exterior photos -and the majority of the copy, no less- featured the county’s modern Civic Center Complex. I couldn’t believe the authors’ stupendous disregard for Evansville’s old courthouse, and I told myself that if I ever took on a similar project I’d make sure to get representative photos of every historic courthouse in the state so as not to leave anyone hanging like I was. So we not only have the old Vanderburgh County Courthouse to thank for stoking my early interest in these monumental old buildings; but we have its omission in the coffee table book to thank for the way this project’s turned out. Thanks, courthouse!
Of all the county seats in my project, Evansville was particularly arduous to get to, despite air conditioning and cruise control, of course. Though it serves as the economic and cultural hub of its tri-state area, the place might as well be located in Albania since it sits more than two-hundred miles away from Indiana’s center of population in Boone County1. Traveling’s gotten a little easier now that I-69 knocks on the city’s door, though, and I recommend a visit once the pandemic slows down. You’ve got one of Indiana’s finest old courthouses there waiting for you, and if you’re lucky, a giraffe might even give your head the old clear coat and tire shine.
But long before there were courthouses or giraffes in Evansville, there was nothing but an oxbow on the Ohio River and Hugh McGary Jr., who bought land there in 1812.. Though it was first dubbed “McGary’s Landing,” McGary changed the name to Evansville two years later in honor of Robert Morgan Evans, a brigadier general who served in the War of 1812 and later bought land in the area. The town was incorporated under its new name in 1817 and named the seat of Vanderburgh County the next year. Due to its prominent commercial location, Evansville soon thrived. Though the county’s earliest courts were held at its founder’s home, 1820 brought a 34 x 46 foot two-story brick courthouse, built at a cost of around $6,0002.
Seems as though it took that building a while to get totally set up, since improvements were constant over the next thirteen years. During that time, Evansville continued to grow when Indiana announced a plan to build a four-hundred mile long canal -the longest in the world- to connect it to Lake Erie at Toledo. Unfortunately, the plan was doomed from the start: not only was most of the trench incapable of actually holding water, but the project wound up bankrupting the state entirely. By the time the Wabash and Erie was completed in Evansville in 1853, the Evansville & Crawfordsville Railroad opened up, connecting the city to Terre Haute3. The advent of the railroad was the death knell for the canal4, which had only seen two flat barges traverse its entire length.
Despite its ultimate failure, the prosperity that the early promise of the canal brought along with the benefit of a functioning railroad meant Evansville needed a new courthouse. After five years of construction it got one in 1857, designed by James Roquet, who built it for $14,000. Though the building had been at least partially occupied by the government as early as 1855, it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Two stories tall, the Greek Revival courthouse looked sort of like a scaled-down version of Boone County’s in Lebanon, measuring three bays wide and seven long with a projecting gabled front held up by four pillars. On top of the building sat a squat dome capped with a tall, hexagonal lantern5. You can see a photo of it offsite.
The census says that, by the late 1880s, Evansville’s population had risen to 50,756 people6– more than quintupling since that 1857 courthouse was built, enough growth to make it the second-largest city in the state. A new courthouse was again in order, so commissioners arranged an unusual anonymous competition between architects7, which Henry Wolters of Louisville won. By the time the extravagant building was completed -on top of the former turnaround basin of the old canal- Evansville had perhaps the finest courthouse in the state, a building that adopted the popular Neo-baroque style of architecture that many cities chose after the Civil War to demonstrate their prosperity8. Today, its more commonly known as Beaux Arts.
That architectural mode gives the courthouse its unique, almost gaudy, appearance. The dome, sitting on a tall drum at the center of the building’s roof, reaches 216 feet above the ground, nabbing it the title of Evansville’s third tallest building, along with its status as the third-tallest historic courthouse in Indiana. Interestingly, Evansville’s also Indiana’s third-largest city, and although it might just be the marketing guy in me, all those threes and thirds make me want to change the town’s nickname from “Crescent City” to “The Hat Trick Capital of the World!” I think the Evansville Thunderbolts hockey team could use that to good effect.
Evansville’s had a hockey presence for a while now. Baseball’s been there even longer, as Bosse Field is…you guessed it, the country’s third-oldest ballpark in regular use after Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. But it’s not hockey sticks or baseball bats that make up the ornamentation of the old courthouse: forty-eight pairs of the building’s pilasters are topped with carvings of fruit, flowers, and vegetables native to southwestern Indiana9. Aside from the carvings, perhaps the most notable features of the courthouse are its complex arrangement of rusticated and smooth stones, the third-story arched windows surrounded by scrollwork, and its fourteen larger-than-life statues by Franz Engelsmann, a Chicago sculptor. Personally, the feature that stands out to me are the semicircular bays that break up the building’s wings, each topped by a hemispherical dome made of “terra cotta lumber,” a mixture of clay and sawdust.
One look at the building tells you how magnificent it is, and it’s not surprising that it even served as the backdrop to speeches by Harry Truman in 1948 and John F. Kennedy in 1960! Nevertheless, by the late 1960s, county government had grown beyond its confines and it was necessary to build again. Though Vanderburgh County had grand designs for its new civic center -scooping up entire blocks through eminent domain and cash payments- the size of the old courthouse, along with the extreme cost of razing such a structure, led to its survival10. Today, just as it was twenty-five years ago when I first went there, the building is privately-owned, available for tours, and home to more than twenty business offices within its majestic walls. Although the Civic Center has long since usurped it for county functions, the courthouse still stands as a beacon representative of Evansville, visible from both Indiana and Kentucky.
My trip to Evansville started with stops in Bloomfield, Petersburg, and Princeton beforehand, and ended with stops in Mt. Vernon, Boonville, Rockport, and Jasper. Though it’s important to assess each courthouse within their context, none of them stood up to Evansville’s, a true gem in our state’s crown. After nearly twenty-five years, I was still filled with the same sense of exuberance seeing it rise with the city’s skyline from US-41 as I was when I first laid eyes on the structure. I think you’ll be equally impressed.
Vanderburgh County (pop. 181,451, 8/92)
Evansville (pop. 117,963)
Cost: $466,000 (1891). ($12.3 million in 2016)
Architect: Henry Wolters
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 216 feet
Current Use: Non-governmental
1 ”State Centers of Population.” Twelve Mile Circle. April 11, 2020. Web.
2 Enyart, David. “Vanderburgh County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/11/20.
3 Morlock, J.. The Evansville Story. 1956. James Morlock. Web. Retrieved 4/11/20.
4 Railroad Lines and Stops” Historic Evansville. Web. Retrieved 4/11/20.
5 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 4/11/20.
6 United States Census Bureau. “Census of Population and Housing”. Retrieved March 1, 2014.
7 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Print.
8 National Register of Historic Places, Vanderburgh County Courthouse, Evansville, Vanderburgh County, Indiana, National Register # 79000031.
9 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Vanderburgh County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 4/11/20.
11 “Old Courthouse” “Celebrate Evansville” 2015. Redstitch. Web. Retrieved 4/11/20.