“Like a gentleman dressed for a dinner party, the …county courthouse stands above the din of life at its feet. A county seat is not only a land of deeds and wills and court cases. It is also a land of pizza, beer and gasoline1” said John Dilts, lawyer and author of The Magnificent 92 Indiana Courthouses. It’s not hard to get wrapped up in that sentiment when approaching the city of Madison from the north. But venture downtown via US-421 -the Michigan Road- and you’ll see that here, the opposite is true. The 1855 Jefferson County Courthouse surveys the everyday bustle of its historic confines from far beyond the reaches of Domino’s, the Cork N’ Bottle, and the Circle K. Exiting your car on the Ohio Scenic River Byway at Jefferson Street is like stepping back in time.
As it should be. Madison is one of Indiana’s earliest cities, established in 1809 on a plateau at the Ohio River. Given its location on the river, as well as its stature as a primary entrance to the Indiana Territory, the place was a busy port that accommodated heavy river traffic. Madison even gained some notoriety regarding its important status as a major stop on the underground railroad2. It wasn’t long before it vaulted up the ranks to become Indiana’s most populous city. In 1812, a simple, two-story log courthouse was constructed, which lasted until 1819 when it was moved and used for other purposes. An octagonal, brick courthouse measuring 40×50 feet was built in 1823, though it was totally destroyed in an 1853 fire3.
1837 brought Indiana’s first railroad to town, the Madison & Indianapolis line. Construction lasted eleven years, but the system soon went into a slump and was sold at foreclosure in 18624. Regrettably, this hastened Madison’s decline as river traffic became secondary to a new railroad that connected Louisville and Cincinnati: Madison’s time as an economic powerhouse was up. It never again rose to anything more than regional prominence- not hard to do when surrounded by some of Indiana’s most sparsely-populated counties. But there was luck to be had, particularly for tourists and historic preservationists: Limited economic prosperity meant that Madison lacked the means to tear down its old buildings and modernize. That, combined with the foresight of Madison’s founders in positioning the city in such a manner that it avoided a hundred-year flood in 1937 meant that today, tourists and residents have much to appreciate in and around its record-setting 133-block historic district5.
The current courthouse has stood, in one way or another, since 1855. David Dubach designed it, keeping within the Greek Revival style that was prominent before the Civil War. The classical pediments, porticos, pilasters, and ionic columns solidify its place in that architectural mode6. Upon its construction, it was thought that its builders had erected its columns from nearby Marble Hill, later the site of an aborted nuclear power plant about twenty miles to the south. Interestingly though, most sources indicate that the marble quarried there was of poor quality, requiring paint to prevent it from decaying. Only later, during a 1998 renovation, did the truth come out: the columns were made of metal, painted with sand in the mix to disguise the shortcut and give the appearance of real stone7.
Overall, the courthouse’s main entrance featured three round arch openings underneath its second-level portico -crowned by a pediment above its four columns. Derbach might not be alone in designing this feature, since a similar sketch appeared in the Asher Benjamin’s 1927 The American Builder’s Companion8. Let’s remember the fire that destroyed the 1823 courthouse, though. Another one, in 1859, took out most of the new courthouse’s interior, though the building was soon rebuilt via architect Durbach’s plans9. John Temberly, a local architect, was responsible for rebuilding the structure’s clock tower. Not long after it was built, the building was whitewashed, giving it a stucco appearance.
For me, walking past the Jefferson County Courthouse and its surroundings gives me a strong feeling of familiarity. “This is what an Indiana courthouse square should look like,” I thought during my trips there. Apparently, county commissioners in Vevay -just one county east- felt the same way, which might be why I felt similar stirrings while venturing there: Matthew Temperly, the guy Switzerland County commissioners elected to build a courthouse there in the 1860s, copped Dubach’s blueprints for the courthouse in Madison. Aside from some small changes and subsequent renovations, the courthouses still appear very similar10. Vevay’s pediment is a little more shallow, it’s missing the stone around its first level, and it lacks the side entrance of the Jefferson County Courthouse, but nevertheless- the similarity is certainly there.
I graduated high school in 2009. That year, I went down to tour Hanover College, a school I’d gotten into, and made my first trip to Madison on the way home. The courthouse stood downtown like a beacon, reflecting the evening sun and seeming to rise higher than the nearby smokestacks at Clifty Hills. Little did I know that Madison’s skyline would dramatically change only a few months later. On May 20, 200 firefighters and support crew from 15 departments responded to a conflagration at the courthouse. Now, courthouse fires aren’t that rare, occurring at least 42 documented times over our state’s history, but this one was the first incident in seventy-five years after fire struck the Porter County Courthouse in Valpo. It only took fifteen minutes after smoke was reported coming out of the building’s windows for flames to shoot out of the tower, causing the roof to collapse and scorching the dome down to its skeletal frame.
Though firefighting efforts ultimately saved the building, they left about five inches of water in the building’s first floor. To make matters worse, the fire occurred the same day that a $160,000 restoration to the building’s exterior finished up. A new roof was scheduled to be installed weeks later, just in time for Madison’s 200th birthday11. It turns out that a contractor soldering two pieces of piping together accidentally caused the blaze, and though he called 911 as soon as the fire began, within minutes it had sped up a copper drain spout. All he could do was save himself and watch the old building ignite12. For a long time -in the face of Madison’s celebration- the burnt building stood as a reminder of fires both recent and in the past.
But Madison is a community that moves forward; from river dominance to rail, from stagnancy to life as a tourist hotspot on the river. County officials immediately announced plans to rebuild, and they did. The courthouse -restored to the extent that it’s nearly impossible to tell the new from the old- was rededicated on August 26, 2011 at a cost of $8 million. Several symbolic objects recovered from the flames were put on ceremonial display like the original clock, now housed inside, as well as the restored bell that fell into the building during the fire, now located under a brick pavilion on the southwest side of the lawn13. Campbellsville Industries, the Kentucky firm that more recently restored clock towers to the Montgomery and Randolph County courthouses, came to the rescue, creating a facsimile of the 1859 cupola that is almost impossible to tell from its predecessor.
Though flames can temporarily cause our institutions to fail, Hoosier ingenuity will always bring them back, often better than ever. Now, a sympathetic tower made of brick to the building’s north connects a modern elevator to the 165-year-old courthouse, insuring its use for many years to come. Despite its early prominence, Madison exists largely because it lacked the funds to replace it’s historic buildings as architectural and economic tastes changed throughout the late 1800s. Join me in congratulating the county’s old courthouse, prime example of Madison’s resilience, a rare, pre-Civil War building that has seen its share of changes. It’s best experienced in real life, though, just as old Madison is. Evade the call of easy pizza, beer, and gas, and go on and head down there to take a look.
Jefferson County (pop. 32,458, 53/92)
Madison (pop. 12,049)
Built: 1855, expanded in 1998, restored 2011 after fire.
Cost: $36,000 ($924,000 in 2016)
Architect: David Dubach
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Print.
2 Hudson, J. Blaine. Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland. McFarland, 2002. Print.
3 Enyart, David. “Jefferson County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/14/20.
4 Hallberg, M. C. “Railroads in North America: Some Historical Facts and An Introduction to an Electronic Database of North American Railroads and Their Evolution”. 2006. Web. Retrieved 4/14/20.
5 “Madison Historic District”. Madison, Indiana. National Parks Service. Web. Retrieved 4/14/20.
6 Windle, John T., The Early Architecture of Madison, Indiana (Madison: Historic Madison, Inc. and the Indiana Historical Society, 1986), p. 115)
7 Hodges, Laura, “Anatomy of a Courthouse,” The Weekly Herald, 31 July 1998. Print.
8 Asher, Benjamin, The American Builder’s Companion, or a system of architecture particularly adapted to thepresent style of building, sixth edition, Boston, MA: R. P & CA. Williams, 1827, Reprinted by Dover Publications, C. New York
9 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Jefferson County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 4/14/20.
10 Enyart, David. “Switzerland County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 12/8/19.
11 “Courthouse sustains heavy fire damage” The Madison Courier [Madison]. May 21, 2009. Web. Retrieved 4/14/20.
12 “Cause of Madison Courthouse fire revealed” WAVE 3 News [Louisvllie]. June 8, 2009. Web. Retrieved 4/14/20.