I’m a person who likes things to fall into a categorizable order. Maybe that’s why when I started this project, I expected to end with one representative photo of each county’s courthouse, winding up with 92 in all. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way- I finished at 114. It turns out that some counties have more than one historic courthouse. I had no clue!
Another aspect of this project that’s been hard to square is the architectural styles of Indiana’s courthouses. Any method of delineation is difficult, and my attempts have devolved into little-known and possibly made up mishmashes like “Neo post-brutalist formalism” or “stripped eclectic classical deco.” Assessing the minutia of architectural styles is something I’m not qualified to do, so it ends up feeling like I’m at Old Country Buffet slopping beef stroganoff, some scrambled eggs, and a slice of sugar creme pie on the same plate and topping it with a heavy press of nacho cheese.
Unfortunately, the appearances of our courthouses are difficult to put an accurate label on given the exuberance of their designers. David Enyart, a researcher who developed the Allen County Public Library Genealogical Center’s historic courthouse database, tried to separate the buildings into seven simple categories, which I’ll repeat below in the order that they typically arrived on the scene:
Log: Self-explanatory, as seen with the 1811 Wayne County Courthouse in Centerville.
Frame: Generally larger than a log courthouse but still made of wood. Normally temporary, Newton County used one for forty-five years1. Even so, the Indiana Supreme Court called the building “so advanced in decay and dilapidation that the entire edifice is said to shake when the court bell is rung over it2.” Ope!
Brick: Counties began ensuring a that ringing bell wouldn’t cause the courthouse to fall in on itself by erecting simple, two-story brick structures. Enyart lists the Brown County Courthouse in Nashville as being an example of this.
Coffee Mill: Two-story, square buildings with a central cupola reminiscent of an old-fashioned coffee mill. David Hermansen, Ball State professor of architecture, coined the phrase. The old courthouse in Rome and the 1816 Indiana State Capitol in Corydon are indicative of this style.
Stylized: Larger brick or stone structures with purposeful architectural details such as, oh, the courthouse in Angola.
Castle: Every subsequent type of historic courthouse in the state built from roughly 1855 through 1940 regardless of style.
Modern: Every courthouse built post-World War II, like those in Marion, Floyd, Delaware, and Clark counties.
No room for Neo post-brutalist formalism in there, although I do object to the childlike candor of Enyart’s categorizations. When put in his straightforward way, though, Indiana’s got one of every courthouse type! While the majority were easy to find, it took me a while to track down Indiana’s last remaining frame courthouse. But I did, as I briefly mentioned when we talked about the current Whitley County Courthouse built in 1890.
Enyart’s work for The ACPL Genealogy Center indicates in passing that Columbia City’s 1841 frame courthouse -a 36×18 two-story structure first completed by builder Richard Baughan for $411.50, “still stands as an inhabited house3.” Elsewhere, he mentions that “the only known survivor of this type is in Whitley County where their 1841 courthouse was moved from the town square when it was replaced and is now a private residence4.” The trail went dry from there.
There are a lot of private residences in Columbia City- 3,944 housing units as of 2010 if the census is to be believed5. Rather than knock on every door or perform an endless search the county assessor database, I wondered if a history book could help me. I found one, Whitley County and Its Families, which shed little light on the matter aside from telling me that the building also served as the area’s first schoolhouse6. Interesting, but unhelpful. A second book, Kaler and Maring’s 1907 History of Whitley County, Indiana brought the goods, referring to the courthouse as “the old frame still standing at the corner of Van Buren and Whitley streets7.” Now I was cooking with gas! The building had been sold to Sylvester Knapp for $35.25 on December 9, 1853, with the understanding that he’d move it away to make room for the next courthouse. It appears as though he did.
I got on Google Maps to look at the intersection. A brick building housing what was once the Linville Memorial Hospital, apparently built in 1929, sat at the northwest side. That wasn’t it, and neither was the house on the southeast corner, which didn’t match the dimensions of the old courthouse. That left the southwest and northeast corners. At first glance, both looked like strong contenders.
A trip to the assessor’s database revealed that the house on the northeast corner had a rear addition that measured 37×18 feet, though the part that faced Van Buren Street and resembled my idea of a frame courthouse was only 28×11. What’s more is that the place wasn’t listed as built until 1890. I knew from working in real estate that pre-1900 dates weren’t always accurate as listed with the assessor, though, so I didn’t totally discount it.
That left the house at the southwest corner, which also looked like it could have feasibly been a simple courthouse at one point in its life. The assessor said it was built in 1920, though, and measured 37×26 feet in size. I can’t tell you why, but that’s the house I decided to roll with. I drove back to Columbia City and snagged a few photos of it.
Over time, my confidence dissolved into a nagging uncertainty since I still hadn’t proved that the house I’d photographed was the old courthouse. So I went back a few weeks later to take photos of all the buildings at the intersection of Van Buren and Whitley just to be sure. I even emailed the local historical society for corroboration, though they never responded.
Meanwhile, I started looking at Columbia City’s Sanborn maps- old maps created for the purpose of fire insurance. The 1886 version showed four buildings at the intersection, just as today, although the hospital site was labeled as a brick dwelling with a French roof- what I knew had served as the Linville family home until the hospital addition out front that came later8. As I’d surmised, the building on the southeast corner was a square house. The layout of the house at the northeast corner showed a building that had been erected in an L-shape, not added onto- both of those were out as the old courthouse. The map seemed to confirm that the house on the southwest corner was the building I’d been looking for. Just to be sure, I checked more maps. The 1890 map showed the same thing, as did the 1897 version.
As I progressed through the available entries, the 1910 Sanborn map showed something unexpected- the house at the southwest corner had been rotated and moved south, its former space taken up by a vacant lot9. The 1918 map -the last one I could find- also showed the house at its new location, but with a new one, matching the modern property sketch in the assessor’s database, at the corner.
What did this mean? Well, it looked like I’d taken pictures of three of the wrong houses over the course of multiple trips to Columbia City, and that the old courthouse, which once stood at the southwest corner of Van Buren and Whitley, had been moved one lot to the south sometime between 1897 and 1910. The assessor lists the building as having been constructed in 1900, so maybe that’s when the move happened. Regardless, I knew that I’d have to make another trip to take photos of the right building. Again!
Before I had the chance to, I received a call from an unfamiliar number with a 260 area code. I answered and was greeted by a volunteer with the local historical society. She confirmed that yes, the house just south of the corner was the old courthouse, that it was now being used as a duplex, and that it featured a modern, exterior stair that provided access to the second-story apartment. She said that the society had additional documentation and even a photo of the building in use as a courthouse and that she would send it to me via mail. Two years later I’ve yet to receive the packet, but judging from the amount of time it took to receive a call back, it may still be on its way.
So back to Columbia City I went to take pictures of the twice-moved 1841 courthouse, Indiana’s last frame courthouse in existence. The building’s use as a dwelling, or more particularly the parallel-parked cars of its residents, makes it hard to get a good photo. Some might even shy away from documenting the structure, given its status as a private residence! I have no such compunctions, although I recently noticed that its neighbor to the north is now blurred out in Google Street View. I wonder if my camera and I were the cause of that wary’s resident’s censorship.
Nevertheless, I believe this post is the first on the entire internet to positively identify the house at 108 S. Whitley Street as the 1841 Whitley County Courthouse, though numerous additions, moves, and changes no doubt lead to some compelling and legitimate ship of Theseus arguments. A 2018 Zillow listing makes no mention of its former status, but it’s no less plausible a courthouse than a children’s playhouse, a set of crumbling ruins, and a former township school. Perhaps more than anything else on this project, I’ve delighted in giving these forgotten structures one more chance in the limelight.
Whitley County (pop. 33,292)
Columbia City (pop. 8,750)
Built: 1841. Moved 1853 and circa 1900.
Cost: $411.50 ($10,336 million in 2016).
Architect: Richard Baughan
Style: Wood frame
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Dwelling
1 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Whitley County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 5/21/20.
2 “Kentland, Newton County Centennial, 1860-1960” Newton County Centennial Committee, Kentland. 1960. Print.
3 Enyart, David. “Whitley County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 5/21/20.
4 Enyart, David. “Types of Courthouses” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 5/21/20.
5 “Population and Housing Unit Estimates”. United States Census Bureau [Washington, D.C.] 2010. Web. Retrieved 5/21/20.
6 Whitley County and Its Families, 1835-1995. Whitley County Historical Society. Turner Publications [Nashville]. 1995. Print.
7 Kaler, S. & Maring, R. “History of Whitley County, Indiana. B.F. Bowen & Company [Indianapolis]. 1907. Print.
8 Romano, Jennifer. “A little history on the old Linville Memorial Hospital” Talk of the Town – Whitley County. Web. Retrieved 5/21/20.
9 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Columbia City, Indiana. 1910. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 5/21/20.