It’s normally pretty easy to have your voice heard by local government. Just for starters, you could show up at a commissioners’ meeting, sign a petition, or hold a protest outside the county building.
But! If all else fails, it might not hurt to gather up six of your elderly bridge club friends and pose naked for a calendar that draws attention to your plight. That’s what the self-styled “Courthouse Girls” from Farmland did while the historic Randolph County Courthouse awaited the wrecking ball- and it worked! The building was saved.
But before we go any deeper, let’s take a look at how it came to that.
The Randolph County Courthouse, originally built in 1877, was originally two stories tall with a high mansard roof and ornate clock tower. Architect J.C. Johnson rose to prominence in the Midwest despite teaching himself the profession, and designed the courthouse to be exemplary of the Second Empire style popular during the Victorian era. It’s definitely evident in the details. The building’s brick walls are framed by offset sandstone quoins and trim, especially around its semicircular and triangular window pediments. The porch on the front lends the building an Italianate feel, as do pronounced soffits underneath the roof. By and large, the building appears the same today as it did when it was constructed 140 years ago.
That wasn’t always the case, though. Two more of Johnson’s courthouses are located within about a hundred miles of Winchester’s, and all three had serious structural issues with their clock towers that necessitated their removal. Perhaps being a self-trained architect was easier said than done, or maybe the Courthouse Construction for Dummies book he checked out was missing a few pages.
Whatever the case, the 1954 obliteration of the courthouse’s clock tower, along with its mansard roof, meant the loss of a Winchester landmark visible from miles away. Those were important details for a courthouse – especially one that county historian Ebenezer Tucker described as “indeed a gem of beauty, a marvel of taste and elegance1” in his 1882 history of Randolph County. A soaring clock tower served as a landmark from far away and a marvel up close, and any city that erected such an opulent courthouse was obviously the place to be.
Despite all that, the beautiful clock tower had to come down. Dry, wooden beams and inadequate wiring made it extra-susceptible to fires, and the building wasn’t fireproofed when it was built. To make matters worse, the tall, narrow tower (100 feet tall by 18 feet square) was predisposed to swaying in strong winds and would tug on and damage the surrounding roof. A state fire marshal’s report suggested the tower had shifted from its original supports and that a strong gust could easily send it crashing into Washington Street2. Removing the tower from the roof was a much more appealing option than removing its wreckage from the bustling streets of Winchester, so away it went, as part of a $60,000 project that added an elevator, a new courtroom, and a new third floor carved out of the attic3.
Fifty years later, the old building was rotting. County commissioners voted 2-1 to demolish the courthouse4 in favor of building a new courthouse or moving to –seriously- an old Walmart on the other side of town. A Walmart! Boy, courthouses sure aren’t the hearts of the communities that they used to be- at least not as much as the local Walmart is, anyway.
Obviously, not everyone agreed with the commissioners’ plan to give the historic courthouse a rollback. In response, Indiana Landmarks put the building on its 10 Most Endangered list and 5,000 residents signed a petition to keep it standing. That’s when the Courthouse Girls stepped in.
Holding only a porcelain model of the courthouse to protect their modesty, the Girls (seven friends with a combined age of 593) stripped and posed for a calendar to draw awareness to the plight of their beloved building. Proceeds went to a ‘Save the Courthouse’ fund, and the calendar went viral5. Soon after, commissioners voted to rescind their earlier decision. The courthouse was saved.
Even though they’d kept the courthouse from the wrecking ball, the county was going to need some extra space to make it work. The original plan called for a new annex to be built on the south side of the courthouse square, but business owners balked- the addition was going to be too big and sit to close to the street. Further, it wasn’t going to match the old building- what was the point? Commissioners agreed and fired the architects6.
The winning plan called for a top-to-bottom refurbishment, but the cherry on top would come in the form of a mansard roof and a brand-new clock tower.
The project was finally completed in the fall of 2011 as workers guided the last piece of the new tower to its final destination 132 feet in the air. After 57 years, Randolph County was on the map again with a new, old courthouse visible from miles around. The occasion didn’t pass without a few more instances of clock tower drama, though: the tower’s arrival was delayed after the semi carrying the last 28-foot-tall section crashed on its way to the courthouse7, and high winds put off the installation even longer. Nevertheless, once the curtain finally fell on the 64-year-long drama of the Randolph County courthouse, the community again had a courthouse it could be proud of.
In a happy encore to the drama, the restoration of the courthouse sparked a trend! The congregation of Winchester’s First Presbyterian Church was so enamored with the tower that the congregation hired the manufacturer of the courthouse clock tower a week later to restore their own cupola –lopped off in the 50s- as well8. Six years later, another one of J.C. Johnson’s courthouses –this time in Defiance, Ohio- welcomed its own replacement clock tower, perhaps largely due to Randolph County’s exquisite example.
So how’d they do? Here’s an old postcard to show the similarities and differences between the current and original versions of the courthouse, taken from the southeast side of the building based on the steps and balcony visible at the bottom right. The tower looks pretty close to what was originally there! Some postcards seem to imply that the tower’s dome was sheathed in a darker material to match the building’s mansard roof, but those all seem to be based on drawings rather than real photos, and it’s hard to tell whether that was actually the case or whether some artistic license came into play. Though hard to see in the postcard below, the courthouse originally featured two convex mansard towers that framed the building’s entryway, as well as a substantial amount of dormer windows that weren’t replaced likely due to cost. Whatever. The tower and restored roof adds immeasurably to the appearance of the building.
Since the restoration of the courthouse added a substantial new wing and primary entrance to the structure, it would have been interesting for the architect to reposition the tower over the crux of the new building to tie the pieces together more certainly, especially since the courthouse doesn’t contain a massive rotunda (those came later). As I walked around the building, though, I realized that the joint between the two segments may have made that impossible.
Nevertheless, I’m always gratified to see historic preservation at work and it was the saga of the Randolph County Courthouse that prompted me to start this entire project back in 2011, scouting its progress with the only camera I had- my original Motorola Droid. As our courthouses continue to age and adapt to the needs of contemporary society, it’s my hope that even more communities will look to Winchester as an example of how technological advances can mix with the remarkable designs of years past to preserve and protect our collection of outstanding Indiana courthouses for years to come.
Randolph County (pop. 25,627, 60/92)
Winchester (pop. 4,854).
Built: 1877, decapitated in 1954, restored and expanded in 2012.
Cost: $80,900 ($1.82 million in 2016), $7.6 million
Architect: J.C. Johnson (1877) Bob Taylor (2011)
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 132 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 8/16/15- 16/92
1 Tucker, Ebenezer . A History of Randolph County With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches. Chicago. A.L. Kingman, 1882. Print.
2 “Randolph County Officials Study Bids For Work on Historical Courthouse” The Palladium-Item [Richmond] April 15, 1954: 11. Print.
3 “Courthouse Project Finished at Winchester” The Muncie Star [Muncie] September 26, 1955: 14. Print.
4 “Overhaul” The Star Press [Muncie] May 16, 2011: 2. Print.
5 “Courthouse Girls bare all for building” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis] July 31, 2005: 1. Print.
6 “Randolph” The Palladium Item [Richmond] May 22, 2012: 2. Print.
7 “Randolph Co. is back on the clock (or vice versa)” The Star Press [Muncie] October 4, 2011: 1. Print.
8 “Church topped with new steeple” The Palladium Item [Richmond] October 11, 2011: 5. Print.