In times of political polarization and calculated discord like these, it’s nice to remember a simpler time when parties could occasionally join forces for a common good. In what was called a “rare display of public unity1,” Democratic and Republican commissioners of St. Joseph County came together to approve plans for a new satellite courthouse in Mishawaka more than forty years ago. One official said that their effort was the first display of partisan partnership ever, save for the occasional heart fund or blood bank campaign.
Some background: A decade earlier, commissioners funded a massive, $8.9 million project to dramatically change the skyline of downtown South Bend, the county seat. To kick things off, most of money went towards constructing a 14-story County-City Building adjacent to the courthouse -which would include all city and county offices- along with an updated jail. The rest of the cash, around a million bucks, was held back to update and expand the interior of South Bend’s historic courthouse to hold a much larger superior court structure based on a law that would take effect in 19722. The County-City Building briefly served as St. Joseph County Courthouse while its 70-year-old predecessor was being reconfigured, but after all was said and done it was clear that the county needed even more space. Why not provide a service to the residents of Penn, Harris, and Madison townships -which made up about a third of the county’s population- by putting another courthouse there3? It wouldn’t be anything significant, just a place for citizens to get married, pay their taxes, and file the occasional suit. It took some time, but the concept finally grew to warrant a plan by the final years of the 1970s.
For the building itself, architects Donlon-Lofgren-Maenhot & Associates recommended a two-story building with a courtroom, judge’s chambers, and other rooms on the second floor and county and township administrative offices on the first, along with a basement featuring a vault, small snack shop, and mechanical room4. The architects included plans for a spacious lobby to handle traffic on election day, and the overall plan was to eventually provide the same level and quality of services as those that could be obtained by venturing to downtown South Bend5, despite newspaper articles that referred to the planned building as a “sub courthouse6.” Another hope was that the increased traffic would help reinvigorate Mishawaka’s flailing downtown.
It sounded like the perfect plan! Unfortunately, there was a catch: money. Officials couldn’t seem to come up with the dough to spring the courthouse into reality7! It took two years, but by 1979 the funds were available- a million dollars, enough for a scaled-down courthouse that was 25% smaller than planned, though one that was strong enough to bear a future third story if one was ever needed8. Armed with a workable plan, construction bids opened up in April of that year.
Work proceeded as planned until a fateful day in August of 1980 when officials realized that the courthouse -nearly-completed and meant to use gas to heat it- was equipped for electric heating, and that the budget would call for more than twice the money to heat the new building as it did to heat the drafty 1898 courthouse in South Bend, several times larger9! Officials were livid when the architects justified the change as not being drastic enough to warrant review. Thankfully, their heads reverted from cartoon steam whistles to human form when the extra costs were revealed to include other utilities. A review of the contract’s terms also specified that the heat be only “energy efficient10”, a vague enough stipulation to leave room for improvisation.
That cooled the temperature down! But with that final drama, the St. Joseph County Superior Courthouse in Mishawaka, known now as simply as the County Services Building, was complete. It opened later that year.
Architecturally, the building is mostly nondescript, save a large Indiana seal that is mounted to the side of the building’s main entrance. Brick in construction, the courthouse is six bays wide with recessed, rectangular windows. Projections at the northwest and southeast corners house stairways, and the rear of the building features a small, landscaped courtyard of shrubbery and red mulch. To me, the building resembles the type of academic hall you’d find at a commuter school. Up until the courthouse, it looks like the firm, which consisted of Joseph Donlon, Ingvar Lofgren, and Leon Maenhout, had designed Clay Junior High School in South Bend, an addition to the Emmons School in Mishawaka, and the public library in nearby Wakarusa. Portions of Clay strongly resemble the courthouse, as does the library. I see no resemblance to the building in any part of Emmons Elementary. The group’s 1970 addition to the old St. Joseph Hospital in downtown Mishawaka doesn’t make itself apparent enough for comparison to the courthouse aside from the use of dark brick.
I love Indiana’s historic courthouses, but I’m on record for appreciating our modern courthouses even though I despise the justice centers built adjacent to historic structures that always seem to fail in their modern interpretations of majesty. I’ve yet to find a great resource that studies the impact that Mishawaka’s satellite courthouse brought to its downtown, but you can be sure its construction brought more people to the city center. That’s important, and I’m a fan of it.
St.Joseph County (pop.363,014, 5/92)
Mishawaka (pop. 49.931)
Cost: $1 million ($2.9 million in 2016)
Architect: Donlon-Lofgren-Maenhot & Associates Style: Modern
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Some county courts and offices
1 “Parties join to back courthouse” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. Sept 1 1977. Page 30. Print.
2 “Courthouse Remodeling to Be Finished in Spring” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. November 15, 1970. 32. Print.
3 “Mishawaka Courthouse” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. February 18, 1978. Print.
4 “Court plans pleasing” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. June 21 1977. Page 25. Print.
5 “Same services goal for annex” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. September 8, 1080. Page 28. Print.
6 “Sub courthouse plans need $700,000 loan” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 10, 1977. Print.
7 “Ferrettie to discuss courthouse annex” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 19 1979. Page 48.
8 “Ferrettie defends scaled-down plans” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. February 27, 1979. Page 23. Print.
9 “Heat switched” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. August 23, 1980. Page 4. Print.
10 “Electric heating wasn’t a ‘change’: Architects” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. Aug 28 1980.
11 “Architects Add Partner” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. February 16, 1975. Page 30. Print.