A version of this post appeared in September, 2019.
Over the past year, Mayor Pete was in the national news more than any other Indiana mayor in the past fifty years. That means South Bend, the city that bestowed Pete’s title, has too. On national TV, South Bend just can’t get any respect, starting with its size and ending with its crime. But from where I sit, it’d be hard to call the place a small town. South Bend is a big place- particularly for Indiana. It’s our fourth-largest city.
I did some digging into how many cities there are in the country. The United States Geological Survey recognizes 35,000 cities and towns, out of which 19,249 actually have municipal governments. If we arbitrarily remove those communities with fewer than 10,000 residents, we’re down to 4,000 “cities” as recognized by the USGS1. That’s a lot, eighty per state.
South Bend’s 101,860 people ranks it as the country’s 306th-largest city. Based on the paragraph above, that’s enough people to put it in the 93rd percentile of cities in the country. Seems big to me- just to go there and you’ll see what I mean- it’s got an actual skyline with eight buildings that top a hundred feet tall.
Jutting up 196 feet, South Bend’s second-tallest building is the County-City Building, formerly Mayor Pete’s domain. Even though South Bend’s home to two old courthouses that still house the county courts, today we’re going to talk about the least interesting one, the County-City Building. I didn’t originally intend to include this in the project, so climb aboard. This will be fun!
First, a quick history: The original seat of St. Joseph County was planned to be at the town of St. Joseph, located at “the portage of the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers2” as designated by the state legislature. By 1831, government moved to South Bend, where a brick courthouse was quickly built two years later. It stood until 1854. Despite replacements in the following year3 and 1898, county officials were ready for a dedicated city-county building as early as 19264. But a variety of issues held up construction for a combined building until someone flipped a switch around 1965. A few disagreements still lingered, but plans were solidified by 1967: There’d be a new County-City Building in South Bend.
Initial drawings by architects Maurer, Van Ryn, Ogden, & Natali, Inc., called for a 14-story skyscraper and connected jail built from aluminum, glass, limestone, and brick. While the jail would take up the building’s basement and extend to its fourth floor, the tower itself would contain city and county offices, with the mayor’s suite at the top5. Building everything, as well as giving the 1898 courthouse a substantial renovation to house, well, the courts, would take $8.9 million. But the county only had $6.9 million. 21-year bonds covered the shortfall, though, and ground was broken on May 6, 1967 at a ceremony where 100 participants dug into the earth with gold-covered shovels. Nine high school marching bands played at the commencement, which featured a speech by the chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce.
Many downtown businesses were enraptured in their support of the new structure, though Robertson’s Department Store was particularly vocal. “We urge everyone to attend this [groundbreaking] ceremony,” they said in a huge newspaper ad, “for we feel that this new County-City Building is more than just a new building. It is the symbol of every man’s faith in the growth of South Bend and the catalyst which will spark further building and rebuilding. Robertson’s looks forward with the rest of our community to the great expectations turned up by these first spades of earth6.”
As grandiose as their sentiment was, Robertson’s copywriters were earnest in their optimism. Many around town shared that opinion as a small sliver of hope during a turbulent decade. Through the early 1960s, more than half of South Bend’s jobs were in manufacturing7. But disaster struck in 1963 when local stalwart Studebaker ended automobile production at its sprawling campus there, ushering in a period of economic downturn that’s lasted a very long time. Per the Census, more than 30,000 people have exited South Bend since 1960, nearly a quarter of its peak population. Had the population stayed the same, South Bend would today be the 210th-largest city in the US.
In the face of economic collapse, The County-City Building project ushered in substantial new development downtown. Soon after it was topped out in 1968, another 14-story building -the St. Joseph (and later Key) Bank Tower- was erected. The following year, Robertson’s still wouldn’t shut up about the progress made downtown, taking out another ad that read, “Our new County-City Building will serve as a symbol of the Downtown South Bend that is to be -thanks to the imagination, ingenuity, and not so common common sense of dedicated people8.”
By November of 1969, the first nine floors of the building, along with the jail wing, were ready for occupancy. In order to start the $1 million renovation of the 1898 courthouse, areas on the sixth and ninth floor of the new building were temporarily converted to courtrooms. For two years, the County-City Building served as the St. Joseph County Courthouse, which qualifies it to be listed here, I guess.
Though the project wasn’t yet completed, our friends at Robertson’s probably rhapsodized again in 1970, when the 25-story American National (later Chase) Bank tower was finished. No doubt the three new, multi-million dollar skyscrapers helped stanch the city’s bleeding as best they could. Later efforts to do so, though, namely the disastrous River Bend Plaza project that turned five blocks of Michigan Street into a pedestrian plaza, failed spectacularly9, and probably contributed to Robertson’s eventual closure during the 80s.
Shortly after Chase Tower was done, the rest of the County-City Building was finally completed. Once the revamped courthouse -essentially a brand new building within its existing walls- was dedicated next door in November of 1971, the courts moved back, ceding their spaces to the county health and welfare departments that they’d displaced10 and ending the new building’s time brief time as the St. Joseph County Courthouse. It soon became obvious that the jail, originally designed for 80 inmates, was too small. After several expansions, it finally moved in 2001.
South Bend has two historic courthouse on adjacent land to this building. Why’d I write about it- especially since it only held courts for two measly years? That hardly sounds like a historic courthouse to me!
But it is, in several ways. First off, this year marks its 53rd birthday, which puts it well within the limits of consideration for the National Register of Historic Places. And secondly, the tower’s also one of just three county courthouses to have been constructed in the International style of architecture. I thought I could wring a couple hundred words out of the place and feature the two or three photos that actually featured the building in the foreground for a quick and easy post.
Thirdly- as of 2015, the place is again a county courthouse, serving as St. Joseph County’s “Courthouse 3” since 2015 when portions of the first and second floor of the old jail were remodeled to take on the Criminal Division of the St. Joseph County Superior Court11! I was unaware of that when I first took pictures of the building in 2016, as was I when I first wrote about it in September of 2019. It looks like I was just a little too early to catch the signs being painted back then, but I’m thankful for the prescience to have taken photos of it again before I knew it was back to being a county courthouse. I guess after nine years at it -and five hardcore- I’ve finally been doing courthousery for so long that they’re building new ones! As long as the trend doesn’t involve the removal of their historic counterparts, I’m all for it, and South Bend has set a great example with its now-three active courthouses built across 112 years.
St.Joseph County (pop.363,014, 5/92)
South Bend (pop. 101,860)
Cost: $8.9 million ($52.7 million in 2016)
Architect: Maurer, Van Ryn, Ogden, & Natali
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 196 feet
Current Use: County offices
Photographed: 3/19/16 and 5/26/20
1 “How many cities or towns are there in the United States?” Colleen Wren. Quora. February 8, 2018. Web. Retrieved 9/19/19.
2 Enyart, David. “St. Joseph County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
3 “A Look Back: 1855 Courthouse in South Bend has had many uses” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 2, 2018. Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
4 “Groundbreaking Ceremony Held” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. May 6, 1967. 1. Print.
5 “Officials Approve County-City Plans” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. March 6, 1967. 9. Print.
6 Men at Work Community on the Move” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. May 5, 1967. 18. Print.
7 Indiana Business Review “South Bend/Mishawaka – Elkhart/Goshen.” Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
8 “Dear South Bend” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. December 11, 1969. 22. Print.
9 “A Look Back at River Bend Plaza” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. March 7, 2016. Web. Retrieved 9/18/19.
10 “County Units Set to Move” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. October 24, 1969. 4. Print.
11 “New magistrates could speed up justice for victims in St. Joseph County” WSBT 22 [South Bend]. 5/12/15. Web. Retrieved 5/29/20.