Johnson County- Franklin (1881-)

Johnson 1
The 1881 Johnson County Courthouse in Franklin. 

Hoosier fourth graders study Indiana history. While most of it’s concentrated around the state’s founding, my recollections circa 2002 culminated in a brief mention of some of the notable people our state has produced. Cole Porter was one, born in Peru. The artist Robert Indiana was another; a New Castle resident born Robert Clark in 1928. Another composer I remember being mentioned in my textbook was Paul Dresser, a Sullivan native who published “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” Indiana’s state song. His younger brother Theodore Dreiser was an accomplished novelist who wrote Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. I guess I can understand why the textbooks forgot people like Axl Rose, Mick Mars, or David Lee Roth (born in Lafayette, Huntington, and Bloomington, respectively) along with their notorious excesses. 

Maybe their omissions have to do with time. After all, it’s been a long time since Cole Porter’s outrageous Parisian lifestyle1, Dreiser’s alcoholic burglaries of liquor stores in his youth2, and Dresser’s time at brothels and saloons that bankrupted him3. There’s really nothing bad to say about Robert Indiana aside from being reclusive in his later years4, which he was certainly entitled to do, so he gets a pass. Nevertheless, the heroes my fourth grade history book lionized deserve a newcomer. 

Johnson 2
The red-and-white interplay of brick and limestone gives the building a unique architectural flavor, not dissimilar from the later Gibson County Courthouse in Princeton. 

I semi-jokingly propose that George Washington Bunting be included in the next pressing of that list of luminaries. One of Indiana’s most prolific courthouse architects, he contributed eight to our state. For the most part, his designs have stood the test of time. The Montgomery County Courthouse in Crawfordsville is his, as is Frankfort’s in Clinton County and its demolished twin in Anderson. Though it’s been decapitated several times, the Greene County Courthouse in Bloomfield was originally a Bunting design, as are the Richardson Romanesque courthouses in Liberty and Bluffton. The Johnson County Courthouse in Franklin is probably Bunting’s most freewheeling design, and it sure is interesting. Just look at it!

The Gibson County Courthouse in Princeton serves many roles, as do all of our historic courthouses. This one made its solemn use very obvious.

The courthouse Franklin is by far the town’s most prominent structure, though without it Franklin would still have an interesting skyline. Old Main -the Victorian centerpiece of tiny Franklin College- features a an 86-foot tall bell tower and observatory capped with a pyramid roof5. Coming into town on US-44 -King Street- you can’t miss it during the winter months when the leaves are off the trees. Old Sanborn maps don’t reveal the height of the courthouse there, but it’s much taller, visible from miles away. Based on Bunting’s other designs, I’d estimate it at around 165 feet tall. That’s about eight fully-grown giraffes. Not bad- you try stacking that many giraffes on end!

Bunting managed to do it in masonry, and the clock tower is tall. But despite it, the Johnson County Courthouse isn’t one where the height renders you speechless. The most striking thing about it is its eclectic nature. It seems as though Bunting slapped disparate elements onto each other, maybe for fun, and who cares? That methodology gives us quite an unusual building. One thing I’ve learned in researching and photographing all of Indiana’s courthouses is that American architects tended to take, for lack of a better term, an exuberant approach towards redefining European standards. That approach didn’t always make sense, but it sure made for some interesting courthouses. Here, Bunting combined Neoclassical elements like pediments, modillons, and columns with Beaux Arts details like its excessive ornamentation, monumental stairways, and symmetry. And though they’re not really mansard roofs, the building’s four corner turrets certainly imply a Second-Empire influence. If America is a melting pot and Indiana is the crossroads of it, Johnson County has got quite an interesting gumbo, thanks to Chef Bunting. Just look at the contrasting brick and limestone. 

Johnson 3
Though no longer accessible, the courthouse’s original entry steps are formidable, serving to remind the layman of the importance and permanence of the pursuit of justice.

Years before Bunting, though, Johnson County was just a rural outpost in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it remained exactly that until fairly recently, once Indianapolis began to sprawl towards Greenwood. The first courthouse there was erected in 1824 out of logs by County Recorder William Shaffer, and it lasted six years. After a two-year absence, Samuel Morrow built a 40 x 40 coffee mill structure out of brick for $2000. That one lasted until 1849, when John Elder and Edwin May built a larger brick courthouse that was destroyed by fire on December 12, 18746. Both Elder and May have courthouse pedigrees that come close to Bunting’s, with Elder designing early structures in Frankfort, Columbus, Rushville, and Connersville. His Connersville courthouse technically still exists, though its evolved into a totally different structure from the outside. Eventually, he fled the state around 1850 to avoid creditors that plagued him from his mismanagement of the Rushville project7. As for May, he designed courthouses in Sullivan, Brookville (which still exists in different form), Liberty, Shelbyville, Greenfield, Greensburg (still there), Fort Wayne, Vincennes (also still there), and Noblesville, a project that he was fired from and was finished by someone else. Additionally, May designed the Indiana State House with the assistance of Adolph Scherrer, who went on to design the Tipton County Courthouse.

Unfortunately, none of those architects had the staying power that George Bunting did, largely due to how early they came onto the scene. Elder and May’s 50 x 84 foot courthouse was demolished in 1874, and Johnson County used a temporary structure away from the square for the next five years before Bunting was called in at a cost of $98,0008. 

The Johnson County Courthouse is actually George Bunting’s first notable work. The son of a sea captain from Pennsylvania and originally intending to take up that trade, Bunting wound up enrolling in architecture school and joining up during the Civil War, later moving to Bloomington, Illinois before finally relocating to Indianapolis. Eventually he added to his Indiana total by developing courthouses in Kansas, Michigan, West Virginia, and Tennessee, but Franklin’s where he got his start. Maybe that explains his lively mishmash of architectural modes, dramatically different from his later, more cohesive, works. 

Johnson 4
Glass-and-metal infills show where the tower’s clocks were originally installed, though their current location was integrated nicely into the building’s design. There must be a postcard of its previous configuration!

The building speaks for itself, and I’ve already described its architectural merits via a broad brush. I visited the structure twice, once during my aborted first attempt of this project back in 2011 and once later after I’d restarted it. I’d always wondered about the four strange, circular openings circumscribed by a square and framed by pilasters and a pediment at the second level of the building’s tower. Apparently, these were originally clock faces, though now they’re windows surrounded by metal grillwork. When the courthouse was built, these openings housed the clocks, I learned! Around 1900, though, the clocks were remounted onto the tower’s pyramidal roof to increase visibility9. As majestic as it is, Franklin College’s Old Main lacks a clock tower. Since the courthouse is only half a mile away from the campus, moving the clocks upwards seems to make sense. After all- kids have to get to class on time! Monroe Street provides direct access from Franklin College to the courthouse today, though both either is invisible from the other today. I’m sure that was different more than a hundred years ago. 

Johnson 10
Front-left is what’s replaced the courthouse square’s old heating plant. The brick chimney referred to in the NRHP listing is no more.

A building at the southwest corner of the courthouse square is what’s left of an old boiler house that once supplied the courthouse with heat. The current structure is modern so maybe I’m saved, but at one point it still featured the original chimney. Though I’ve run into a few examples of that type of building in Ohio, this is the only one I remember from all of Indiana. Today, the building features several squat, modern chimneys. Uninteresting. 

Johnson 5
With upkeep and annexes, the Johnson County Courthouse in Franklin will continue to serve another 130+ years.

Though it seems that the McDonald Bros. copped his design into a more widespread version of this courthouse that even made it into the annals of the Department 56 Christmas Village designs as the “Original Snow Village Courthouse,” it’s important to recognize the original here. We’ve recognized Cole Porter, Robert Indiana, Paul Dresser, and Theodore Dreiser anyway, along with members of Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, and Van Halen for Christ’s sake! Let’s add George Bunting to that list for his Indiana courthouses that have stood the test of time. As his earliest, most effervescent example, the Johnson County Courthouse in Franklin represents a great entry into our state’s portfolio of historic courthouses. 

TL;DR
Johnson County (pop. 145,535)
Franklin (pop. 24,194).
Built: 1882
Cost: $98,000 ($2.43 million in 2016)
Architect: George W. Bunting
Style: Neoclassical/Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Harrisonburg Square
Height: ?
Current Use: County courts and some offices
Photographed: 3/12/16- 46/92


1 Bell, JX. “Cole Porter Biography”. The Cole Porter Resource Site. September 23, 2010. Web. Retrieved 8/9/20.
2 Henderson, Clayton W. On the Banks of the Wabash: The Life and Music of Paul Dresser. 2010. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press. Web. Retrieved 8/9/20.
3 “Sister Carrie” Encyclopedia.com. Highbeam Research. 2019. Web. Retrieved 8/9/20.
4 Finkel, J. (May 21, 2018), “Robert Indiana, 89, Who Turned ‘Love’ Into Enduring Art, Is Dead” The New York Times. May 21, 2018. Web Retrieved 8/9/20.
5 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Franklin, Indiana. 1897. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 8/9/20.
6 Enyart, David. “Johnson County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 8/9/20.
7 Enyart, David. “Architectrs” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 8/9/20.
8 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Johnson County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 8/9/20.
9 National Register of Historic Places, Johnson County Courthouse, Franklin, Johnson County, Indiana, National Register # 81000017.

Author: tcshideler

I'm a fan of local history, pizza robots, NBA basketball, LEGOs, and playing drums.

3 thoughts

  1. Quite a number of years ago I was at this one frequently. So frequently that I grew dull to the fabulous architecture. But Court rules were eventually changed so that the transfer of cases between counties (which sent lots of them to Johnson County) became fairly rare and it has been awhile.

    Among notable Hoosiers from the era you cite, we should not forget Hoagy Carmichael – who briefly practiced law in Indianapolis before becoming a writer of songs who could give Cole Porter a run for his money.

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    1. Why’d the rules change?

      And yes, I haven’t forgotten Hoagy, and I didn’t know he’d practiced law! I ran with Porter because I specifically remember him, along with the others listed, from my fourth-grade history book’s brief mention of pop culture luminaries.

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      1. From their 1970 enactment the rules allowed an automatic change of venue to another country. The choices were counties contiguous to the place of original filing. There was a belief held by some that the rule was being used for racial reasons – to force black plaintiffs into rural counties for jury trials. That was never my experience – we moved cases to avoid judges we didn’t like or out of a belief that rural juries would be tighter with a dollar. My experience was a defense v plaintiff thing rather than a racial thing. Though that sort of thing likely happened sometimes.

        Back then there were some Marion County whose dockets were quite sparse because neither side liked them, and ditto certain “venue counties”. The cases tended to flow towards better quality judges. Now you have to come up with a reason to move a case and nobody wants to get on the wrong side of a judge unless there’s a big reason.

        Liked by 1 person

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