As Sullivan County officials planned a new building to replace their antiquated 1852 courthouse, they hit the road and visited several buildings in western Indiana for inspiration. Loaded with money from the coal mining industry that was burgeoning there1, they eventually wound up in Newport, the seat of Vermillion County. So struck were they by the courthouse that day that, by 1926, they had their own replica of it courtesy its architect, John B. Bayard of Vincennes2.
Okay, so maybe it’s not on exact copy. The Vermillion County courthouse, located about sixty miles north of Sullivan’s, plies its trade in Beaux Arts ornamentation -testament to its popularity that had largely waned by 1926. Sullivan County’s is more ornate, though, including an impressive central rotunda, stained glass dome hidden within its attic, two-story columns, and lots and lots of marble. Regardless of the differing scale of their interiors, the courthouses still look quite similar; in fact, they looked identical to me when I first visited them several months apart. But if we use a simple formula I constructed a year or two ago, the differences become quite clear: Let’s put each building’s initial cost through an inflation calculator, then divide the result by the number of residents each county had when they were built. Sullivan County’s should have a much greater cost, per capita, than Vermillion’s. Just give me a second to crunch the numbers- remember, the same guy designed both courthouses only two years apart.
These numbers are always a little bit flawed because I assume a linear trajectory between censuses to calculate populations, along with not taking interest from bonds or loans into consideration- it’s imperfect. But still, for our basic purposes it works just fine. What I found is that Sullivan County in 1926 was home to about 29,532 residents, and the courthouse cost today’s equivalent of about $7.2 million. That works out to a cost of $244 per resident if it was built today. In Vermillion County, the 1924 courthouse cost $358,707- $5.4 million today. We can end the exercise here since that’s clearly less than its counterpart, but now I’m committed: There were around 25,870 people in Vermillion County in 1924 when the courthouse was built. Therefore, it cost about $207 per capita to build in today’s money. Though the formula was overkill here, check out my post about Delphi’s Carroll County Courthouse, where it really helped me differentiate between about twelve of Indiana’s neoclassical jewelboxes like these. Maybe it will help you too! There are a ton of them around these parts.
Before Sullivan County had a neoclassical box for a courthouse, they went through a few different iterations. The town of Merom -next to the Wabash River on IN-58- was the county seat from 1819 to 1843, though courts were held in Carlisle, now home of the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, during the two years prior. A courthouse was never built in Carlisle, though- it met in the home of James Sproule, where Sullivan County was first established3. Both Merom and Carlisle were far from the center of the fledgling county, so in 1841 Sullivan was founded to ease the travel burden of the county’s more rural residents. Two years later, a log courthouse later destroyed by a fire was built, followed by a much larger courthouse done by the creative architect Edwin May, designer of nine across Indiana. Originally 40 x 60 feet, the courthouse was heavily modified and added onto by Charles William Greenlee in 1872, which created a yellow-brick dead-ringer of the Posey County courthouse in Mt. Vernon4, complete with its wide, shallow dome, extended wings, and enormous lantern. That’s the one officials replaced in 1926, and I’ve actually got a postcard of it here:
Though it doesn’t show off as much as its sibling in Vermillion County, Sullivan’s current courthouse still features many of the tropes of the Beaux Arts style. But what really constitutes Beaux Arts? Well, take a look at the Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne and you’ll have a great idea. The style largely depends on sculptural decoration across modern lines, along with with a rusticated first story, arched windows, classical details, symmetry, and a “hierarchy of spaces” meaning that grand entrances and stairways give way to utilitarian rooms5.
In Sullivan, the mode defines itself in a more humble manner than in Fort Wayne. Here, the courthouse features limestone swags and garlands, along with radiating window headers. Rather than displaying a roofline filled with sculpture6, the courthouse features a Corinthian cornice and modest clock; though it’s not elevated within a tower. Aside from Bayard’s sister design in Vermillion County, this courthouse strongly represents the Carroll, Rockport, and Pike County Courthouses in Delphi, Spencer, and Petersburg. Maybe I should include my spreadsheet with that formula after all!
Too lazy. One thing I tried to do later in my project and largely failed at was to capture the feeling of the squares around the courthouse. At one point, Sullivan’s was built out with structures from the 1800s and 1900s, though today, only the south and west sides are densely populated with historic buildings since the other areas give way to parking lots and modern buildings such as the Sullivan County Jail nearby. Despite the losses -most due to fire and, well, a bulldozer, the area gives a decent impression of Hill Valley’s courthouse square in the Back to the Future trilogy, though without the hoverboards or a wire leading to a Delorean. The green around the courthouse itself features several trees and contains a monument to Sullivan County veterans. Walkways are mostly straight, leading from the center of each block to the corresponding entrance of the courthouse, though a diagonal one passes the monument.
At the center of it all is the courthouse; nearly square, measuring 120 feet long by 105 feet wide and rising two stories above a partially-raised basement. Built of steel and concrete yet dressed in limestone, the western facade is considered its main front. Above the building’s roofline sits the prominent parapet I mentioned earlier, along with its clocks. Within the stone arch that frames each clock is a stone wreath, with two flower-shaped ornaments (fleurons) that flank the clock face itself. Inside, the original design of the building is well-preserved: the basement remains utilitarian and the ground floor features an auditorium with raked seating and a proscenium stage at its west end on the building’s south side. The rotunda is surrounded by square columns and has a compass design built into the tile, and the first floor contains most of the county’s offices. The circuit courtroom takes up most of the second floor, featuring a huge oak backdrop behind the judge’s bench.
One of my favorite features in our historic courthouses is stained glass. I didn’t go inside, but if I had, I’d have seen a ridiculously ornate stained glass dome capping the rotunda that belies the building’s simple exterior. Decorative moldings that incorporate floral, egg and dart, and dentil moldings support it via eight columns. The glass itself is initially divided into four sections but each are grouped into five segments as the dome extends outward, for a total of twenty at its far reaches. Within the stained glass, the shapes of arrows, circles, and chains are apparent, as is a row of five-pointed stars encircling the dome at its middle section.
The attic is where you can see the top of the dome- like many classical revival boxes, this courthouse has a hidden skylight to direct sunlight through it during business hours- it’s a glass, pyramidal structure framed in steel but hidden from view. When I was a kid, I had several opportunities to attend functions at Fort Wayne’s Messiah Lutheran Church with my grandparents. I was outraged that the building featured phony stained glass windows behind its exterior walls that used high powered lamps to pipe the “sunlight” in. Unfortunately, I believe that the courthouse in Sullivan uses similar trickery. Maybe someone from Sullivan can read this and correct me!
Rotunda chicanery or not, the rest of the courthouse is a sincere representation of a county seat that few outside of the area’s borders even know exists. It’s that sincerity that draw me to the Sullivan County Courthouse. It’s not ostentatious in its presentation, but it gets the job done for its constituents. This will end up sounding very NPR of me, but like the county’s coal miners, the courthouse seems to be just one of many others from the outside. But you’ve got to venture inside to see the whole picture; how it thrives amongst its peers. Though I’m naturally drawn to the landmark courthouses visible from miles away, they don’t often share those connotations.
Sullivan County (pop. 21,223, 69/92)
Sullivan (pop. 4,217)
Cost: $500,000 ($6.78 million in 2016)
Architect: John B. Bayard
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Print.
2 National Register of Historic Places, Sullivan County Courthouse, Sullivan, Sullivan County, Indiana, National Register # 08001213.
3 Enyart, David. “Sullivan County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/15/20.
4 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 1/15/19.
5 Klein, Fogle, & Etienne, “Clues to American Architecture” 1986. Starrhill Press [Washington, D.C.]. Print.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Sullivan County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/15/20.