My childhood was not always the happiest, but I was a kid who was blessed with the chance to spend the summertime at several lake cottages in northern Indiana, among them a blue a-frame type owned by a dentist, a chateau with a huge loft, and a ranch that was so stuffed with extended family that my siblings and I were forced to sleep in the garage! From taking walks with my grandpa, learning to fish, cooking popcorn over the stovetop, and watching a folding bed snap my sister up like a hair clip, I have many great memories from those summers. The less said about the fish I inadvertently hooked in the eye, the better.
One year when I was six or seven we all caravanned over to Columbia City for a band concert on the courthouse square. A blanket was laid out and snacks were produced. I confess that I can’t remember much about that evening: my attention was totally diverted to the building itself and its weird, bell-shaped chimneys! I was old enough to be aware of a handful of courthouses around the state, but not yet old enough to connect them to the concept of a county seat. Discovering a new one was always a big event for me and the Whitley County Courthouse must have been one of the first I’d seen that I didn’t pass regularly on trips to see family, such was the impression it made.
Columbia City actually has two extant courthouses. Originally, the area was part of Huntington County, which was established in 1834. Settlers of European origin began showing up around then. The county was established the following year, and court was first held at the home of Richard Baughan in 1839, indicting a Joseph Pierce for retailing without a license and fining him $2.001 for the offense. A proper county seat, Columbia, was formed later that same year, and courts were held at David Long’s hotel as well as at the home of Abraham Cuppy, the county clerk. Columbia was officially platted in 1840, eventually taking its current name. The first proper courthouse was completed in 1841, a simple two-story wooden structure measuring 36×18 feet2. That building, which also served as Columbia City’s first schoolhouse3, was located at the west side of the courthouse square until 1850, when it was purchased and moved to the southwest corner of Van Buren and Whitley streets. After some shuffling, it still stands there, albeit one lot to the south, as a rental property. It’s Indiana’s last remaining wood-frame courthouse.
A brick courthouse that lasted thirty-nine years superseded that first structure, and it would have lasted longer had timid commissioners gotten their way. But by the late 1880s, it was clear to local stakeholders that the intermediate courthouse’s defective chimneys and lack of fireproof construction made it unsafe to occupy. Thirty of Whitley County’s richest citizens banded together to demand that a new courthouse be erected4. Fearing for their jobs, commissioners finally acquiesced.
County officials hired Brentwood Tolan to draw up plans for the courthouse. Longtime readers here might remember him- he and his father T.J. were responsible for six other courthouses in Indiana, along with four more in neighboring states. Their architectural tree even expands to another prolific group, Wing & Mahurin of Fort Wayne, which in one form or another designed four Indiana courthouses and a replacement tower for a fifth. Before he set out with Marshall Mahurin, George Wing served as the Tolan’s chief draftsman5.
Now, T.J. was pretty much enamored with Second Empire architecture and its mansard roofs and elaborate ornamentation. For his part, Brentwood mostly humored him, though he began coming into his own Beaux Arts influences near the end of his father’s life. While his courthouses in Warsaw, Rockville, and Muncie (now demolished) serve as links to his father’s stylistic impulses, the courthouse in Columbia City probably best reflects Brentwood’s preferences. That’s not to say he abandoned his father’s teachings entirely, though! Possibly in homage to his dad, the courthouse’s north and south entrances are framed by mansard turrets, and its cross-axial plan and central clock tower come straight from his old man’s playbook. The rest, though? That’s where it starts to get interesting6.
I was struck by two things when I first saw the building during that summer at the lake cottage. The first, mentioned previously, was its unusual chimneys that looked like columns with nothing to support. I know you could probably say that about any type of chimney, but really- have a look at these. They are special. The second thing that struck me was the courthouse’s pair of monumental staircases: back during the courthouse boom of the 1800s, it was common to design a building that sat on a raised basement, sometimes called a half-story, which was typically devoted to utilitarian use. The real first floor rose from that, so it was necessary to have a staircase to reach it from the outside. And the bigger, the better! I hadn’t seen anything like Whitley County’s- they’re a rarity anymore, since accessibility concerns have led some counties, like Clinton and Porter, to remove them entirely. Whitley County’s staircases have a built-in compromise: the building’s east and west entrances can still be reached via the monumental stairs, but each set is supported by an open arch that provides access to basement-level doors in the event that they’re required. A win-win. I love it!
I wish I could attribute this next observation to my precocious and astute younger self, but its one that I just made today: If you lopped the top of the building off at its roofline, what you’d be left with would bear a strong resemblance to those neoclassical econoboxes we frequently find in cities like Delphi, Rockport, or Petersburg. Aside from its northern face, the building’s bulk is relatively unadorned! I think that’s testament to how much Tolan’s roof effects -the mansard peaks and the chimneys- really contribute to its appearance. Not to mention the 150-foot7 tall elephant in the room, of course, the courthouse’s magnificent clock tower.
Rising from a squarish base, the tower’s drum consists of an open-arched series of paired columns that frame louvered openings- that’s where the bells are. Above the columns are eight consoles with four clocks between them that face the cardinal directions, along with four ordinal oculi . The dome itself features a conical vault with a copper covering, and supports a large finial in the shape of a torch. Approaching town, you will see this from a long way away- I counted 2.2 miles when I approached from the west, and I’m sure it’d have been visible from even farther if not for a curve on old US-30.
After his work on the Whitley County Courthouse was finished, Brentwood Tolan moved on from his Second Empire-and-Beaux Arts mishmash for greener pastures, designing the markedly different Richardson Romanesque LaPorte County Courthouse just two years later8. I suppose I moved on too after that summer evening when I first saw his courthouse on the square. It wasn’t long before those carefree weeks on Tippy, Barbee, or Tri-Lakes, where my only concern was where I left my basketball card binder melted into the bullying and harassment a newly-blended family ushered in for me. I don’t know how much of Tolan’s stylistic divergences were due to his father’s looming shadow, but I can say with certainty that the specter of those years still overshadows me, even twenty years later.
Tolan reached his creative peak at 47, when he designed Allen County’s massive Beaux Arts courthouse, a nationally-renowned masterpiece. After that, he retreated to Lima, Ohio to join an existing architectural firm before dying in 1923 at only sixty-eight. What a career Tolan had! At twenty-nine, he took over a project from his ailing father and ended up designing the Kosciusko County Courthouse. Six years later came the courthouse in Columbia City.
I’m twenty-nine now, and I’ll probably never design and build a courthouse. I’ll probably never do a lot of things my seven-year-old self had dreamed of. But appreciating the Whitley County Courthouse? I’ll do that until the day I drop!
Whitley County (pop. 33,292)
Columbia City (pop. 8,750)
Cost: $165,000 ($4.39 million in 2016).
Architect: Brentwood S. Tolan
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 150 feet
Current Use: County office and courts
1 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Indiana. Baskin, Forster & Co [Chicago]. 1876. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Whitley County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 4/21/20.
3 Whitley County and Its Families, 1835-1995. Whitley County Historical Society. Turner Publications [Nashville]. 1995. Print.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Whitley County Courthouse, Columbia City, Whitley County, Indiana, National Register # 79000029.
5 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/21/20.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Whitley County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 4/21/20.
7 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Columbia City, Indiana. 1897. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 4/21/20.
8 Indiana Landmarks (2013). LaPorte County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 4/21/20.