I’m a big fan of Art Deco architecture- you know, the style that originated in France before World War I that Wikipedia says celebrates “luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress.” If you’re from around Indianapolis, you may be familiar with the 17-story Circle Tower completed in 1930. That’s Art Deco for sure. But I’m from Fort Wayne, where 312-foot tall Lincoln Tower reigns supreme. That’s Art Deco too. Hail from South Bend? The 7-story I&M Building/Colfax Place is another great example. I think I covered my whole readership! Sorry if I forgot someone in checking in from a remote outpost in Bean Blossom, Yeddo, or Gnaw Bone- I don’t think you have any Art Deco structures. Or, in some cases, any structures!
All of these buildings personify the style’s focus on expensive materials and craftsmanship, which was translated through a streamlined approach that often emphasized a building’s verticality. I find the style enormously interesting but unfortunately, Indiana’s courthouses are dominated with Second Empire, Beaux Arts, Richardson Romanesque, and Neoclassical designs. Only two Art Deco courthouses, in Shelby and Fountain counties, managed to squeak their way into existence in 1937 thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and the Public Works Administration. A third, in Howard County, was completed with some PWA funding1 but mostly drew from local coffers, an arrangement that ended up nearly doubling the budgets of the other two2. I wonder if we’ll see a new mini-courthouse boom from the COVID-19 recession. Judging by all the bland judicial centers dotting our state, I certainly hope not!
Outside of Indiana’s, the closest Art Deco courthouse I’ve been to in 62 midwestern counties on this project is Harrison County’s in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Now THAT is a courthouse! Back here on the banks of the Wabash, though, we’ve talked about the deco courthouses in Shelbyville and Kokomo already. Fountain wraps the series up! The Art Deco courthouse here is the county’s third, replacing a frame structure built in 1827 and a brick building built in 1833 which burned and was reconstructed in 1860. One of these days I’ll have a postcard of the second courthouse to show as an example. They don’t come up often, and when they do I keep getting outbid!
If you know of one, send it my way, since that building differs from the present structure in nearly every way. Basically, it was three stories with a massive, front-facing square clock tower that rose from its main entrance and several small turrets and chimneys. I really wish I had that postcard! Looking through the ones I do have, I guess it sort of resembled the 1862 Hendricks County Courthouse in Danville from certain angles. It was different enough to make me really covet that card, though, so eventually we’ll all be able to see it.
Obviously, the building I described is markedly different from what exists in Covington’s courthouse square nowadays. Deco, as manifested here, is not found in the typical, exuberant format that many buildings were constructed in during the 1920s. In America, Art Deco buildings of the 30s were influenced enormously by the severity of the Great Depression and the impact it had on the country’s collective spirit3. In response, these “stripped classic”, or “classical moderne4” buildings degenerate back towards neoclassical persuasions. Aside from some minor Deco ornamentation, the exteriors of the Fountain County Courthouse and its cousins in Shelbyville and Kokomo may have more in common with courthouses in Delphi or Petersburg than they do with more full-throttle Art Deco structures like we talked about in the opening paragraph.
Most of that is due to the building’s rectilinear straight lines and angles and boxy outline. However, the building’s geometrically-paneled-window stacks, spandrels, and pilasters; plant forms carved into the columns of its main entry bay; four-foot-tall bronze lanterns; and weird, beastly sculptures that flank the main entrance place it solidly in the Art Deco column. The sculptures, with the head and legs of a ram and a torso that turns into an upwardly-curving vase, appear to have been the creation of a sculptor hired under the purview of the Federal Arts Project5. Unfortunately, I struggled to photograph the building due to the camera’s focus on the raindrops of the day, so you’ll have to go see those freakish sculptures for yourself.
Of major interest to me is the building’s verdigris spandrels, those green pieces that separate the windows- thankfully, they came through in my photos, unlike the sculptures, and represent a feature not really found in the other Art Deco courthouses of Indiana, at least not in that color. They’re made of Rostone, a material made when combining waste shale and limestone6 For this, we have Walter Scholar to thank. He should be familiar to longtime frequenters here for being the Courthouse Doctor, a guy who transformed the Lawrence County Courthouse in 1930 and renovated Porter County’s burned out structure in 1937. Scholar was a fan of new materials, and when he was commissioned to build a prototypical house for the Homes of Tomorrow Exhibition of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he jumped at the chance to build one out of Rostone. Though it was marketed as never needing maintained, the home’s artificial stone started to fail after only two decades7, years after it was moved to Beverly Shores, Indiana. The home, now known as the Wiebolt-Rostone House, was renovated in 1997, though only its front entrance still consists of original Rostone. Thankfully, Fountain County’s has subsisted for far longer.
Now, here’s the thing: I like Art Deco a whole lot, but the courthouses I grew up seeing as a kid tended to be of the clock tower variety- ten of the fourteen I encountered more than once in my youth had a tower, and twelve had at least a dome, so naturally that’s where my preferences are. To each their own, but when I first started this project I wouldn’t have known a Deco courthouse if it’d snuck up and smacked me. I simply lumped them in with all of the other neoclassical courthouses I found uninspiring. But there’s an inherent bias in all of that, since neoclassical and Art Deco courthouses tend to have some of the most stunning interiors. Unfortunately, I’ve only been in six of Indiana’s historic courthouses, and just two since I started my project. It’s hard to take photos inside a courthouse when they confiscate your phone and camera at the door!
I would sure love to go inside Covington’s, though. After entering through the primary northern entrance, you come to a vestibule with 10×15 foot paintings by the acclaimed artist Eugene Savage, Covington born and bred. Pass through that and you’re in the main rotunda, which contains a 32-square foot wired-glass skylight. This public area contains three jaw-dropping elements aside from the skylight: an enormous split staircase; copious pink marble facings; and a 2,500 square foot mural that, applied to the first and second-story walls, surrounds the public area above the wainscot- a feature that the building, apparently, was designed around. I sure do love my semicolons today!
Outside of the rotunda (more accurately, perhaps, a rectangula), the building’s second-story courtroom still features built-in oak furnishings, Art Deco light fixtures, and original linoleum square flooring. The building’s two other major spaces -an assembly room and a room for county commissioners- have not emerged unscathed from the past eighty-three years, unfortunately. But fans of 83-year-old buildings can’t be choosy.
I doubt I’ll ever have reason to go to Covington again. On the far west side of the state, it’s pretty remote, and I was on a day-long trip that took me from Muncie to Lafayette, Fowler, and Kentland before heading back down US-41 through Williamsport, which is the most desolate stretch of highway for someone desperately searching for a cheesed burger. From Williamsport I headed to Covington, Newport, and Terre Haute before heading back east towards Brazil and Greencastle. It was a long, rainy day, but an important trip to conquer. The Art Deco courthouse in Covington was a great site to break up some of the monotony. Only in retrospect did I discover that Covington provides several restaurants, such as the Agave Azul, Benjamin’s, and the Maple Corner. That would have been nice to know! I think I eventually stopped at a Hardees in Clinton -40 miles south- for my lunch.
On those long trips, courthouses tended to run together until I got home to look at may photos. Congratulations to Covington for preserving such an Art Deco landmark that I won’t soon forget.
Fountain County (pop. 16,880, 78/92)
Covington (pop. 2,607)
Cost: $246,734 ($4.12 million in 2016)
Architect: Louis Johnson and Walter Scholar
Style: Art Deco
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Enyart, David. “Howard County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 5/9/20.
2 “Howard County Courthouse – Kokomo IN” The Living New Deal. Department of Geography. University of California [Berkeley]. Web. Retrieved 5/9/20.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Fountain County Courthouse, Covington, Fountain County, Indiana, National Register # 08000191.
4 Weber, E. “Art Deco in America”. Simon and Shuster, Exeter Books [New York]. 1985. Print.
5 Short, C.W., & Stanley- Brown, R. “Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture” United States Government Printing Office ]Washington, D.C.]. 1939. Print.
6 Collins, J.E., Boquiren, J.A., & Culberson, L.J. “Wieboldt-Rostone House; HABS No. IN-240” Historic American Buildings Survey; National Park Service, Department of the Interior; Washington, DC; 1994.
7 McKee, A.M. “Stonewalling America: Simulated Stone Products”. CRM: Preserving the Recent Past.” Volume 18, Number 8. 1995. Print.