I tend to not be interested in justice centers, modern annexes, or any similar nonsense and my take on Indiana courthouses in general is to view them individually as part of a greater portfolio. 92% of counties in Indiana still feature at least one historic (pre-1937) courthouse, and I’m content to allow the modern White County Building to take its rightful place within the context of so many historic courthouses still standing elsewhere in the state.
Three stories tall and nearly square, the White County Building features projecting, central masses on each side. The first floor is faced with a horizontal band of windows that flank recessed entries accessible from beneath the central projections. Dark brick walls on each side are delineated into visible stories by wide, contrasting, concrete bands. The corners of the building are framed by similar vertical bands and narrow windows. Facing east on the town’s square next to a brick plaza, the overall feel of the building is one of heavy fortification.
It’s pretty clear why the White County Building was designed to appear this way. When an old courthouse gets torn down, it’s usually the result of long, careful, and sometimes contentious thought regarding the needs of the county. Unfortunately in the case of White County, Mother Nature made in executive decision- the 1894 courthouse that this building replaced was flattened by a tornado in the 1974 ‘Super Outbreak’.
Between April 3rd and 4th, nine separate cyclones throughout Illinois and Indiana killed 18 people and inflicted more than $100 million in damages. The strongest hit Monticello dead on in a show of force unprecedented over the 25 years of service of one National Weather Service official1. Lives were spared downtown since stores had closed and school was already out for the day, but a hundred homes and an additional hundred business were wiped out. The community was devastated2.
How’d the old courthouse stack up against the new one? Well, the destroyed courthouse had been the centerpiece of downtown for eighty years and was sort of close in appearance to the current Blackford County Courthouse in Hartford City (designed by the same architects) and Wells County’s in Bluffton. Rising three stories tall, the courthouse boasted octagonal turrets rising from three corners. A three-story clock tower capped in a steep, pyramidal roof ascended from the fourth corner. Projecting, gabled entry masses were centered on each three of the building’s faces which divided each elevation in half, and the building was crested by a steep hipped roof and four chimneys. Obviously, it was dramatically different than what we see today.
Despite the hardy construction of the courthouse, the tornado made quick work of dismantling it. Photos taken after the storm show the building’s roof stripped to the joists and the attic and chimneys outright demolished. Most of the structure’s windows were blown out and most notably, the clock tower was gone, detached as cleanly as if a giant had lopped it off with an enormous pair of scissors. Broken glass, roofing tiles, and masonry coated the town square. Nearby, the bell tower had blown completely off the top of city hall and was later recovered, seemingly undamaged. I found it standing next to the old Carnegie Library when I was there.
Now, under normal circumstances, the process of improving or building a courthouse can take years; actually starting work can take even longer. But before the tornado hit, no one had planned to build a new courthouse and the whole thing had to be orchestrated on the fly. Regrouping in temporary space in Monticello’s National Guard Armory3, officials earnestly commissioned an architectural study to judge whether the wrecked building could be saved. Even if it could be, they’d need more space in order to consolidate offices scattered across downtown. Early estimates indicated that the building would cost $2 million to reconstruct and expand or $31,000 to demolish outright4, but funding was going to be a problem- the tornado leveled so many buildings that officials worried there wouldn’t be enough property taxes to sufficiently pay for either option5.
Funds ultimately became available in the form of disaster relief aid and it took county officials less than a year to decide to construct a larger, modern courthouse. The new, gleaming6 building was completed in 1976 on the site of its predecessor, and several artifacts from the destroyed courthouse were salvaged and incorporated into the landscaping surrounding the new building next to a replica of the square’s wrecked bandstand. The new courthouse featured two cornerstones- one standard, and one depicting a silhouette of its forerunner next to the inscription ‘DESTROYED BY TORNADO APRIL 3, 1974’.
It took nearly two years, but by February of 1976, most of Monticello’s downtown district had been rebuilt or relocated. Residents surely missed looking up and seeing the iconic clock tower of the destroyed courthouse but grudgingly came to accept its replacement as another sign of progress and recovery from the tornado. Although the current courthouse doesn’t replicate the style of its precursor, it stands as an honest example of 1970s public architecture. More important than its appearance, though, it aptly fits the needs of the constituents it serves- it’s just sad that it took a tragedy of the magnitude of the super outbreak for the county to acknowledge the need for more space and modern design. If the tornado hadn’t hit, I suspect we’d see in Monticello what we often see across the state: historic courthouses relegated to housing several minor offices while a modern justice center houses the courts somewhere else. In a way, I’m glad this didn’t happen- I wouldn’t be nearly as interested.
White County (pop. 24,466)
Monticello (pop. 5,362).
Cost: $2.4 million ($10.1 million in 2016)
Architect: Longardner and Associates
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County courts and offices
1 “Monticello Subdivision Disappears” The Journal and Courier [Lafayette] April 8, 1974: 17. Print.
2 “Tornado-Stricken Monticello Rebuilds for Brighter Future” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis] February 26, 1976: 6. Print.
3 “Armory Becomes New Courthouse” The Journal and Courier [Lafayette] April 9, 1974: 7. Print.
4 “Unit To Study Needs” The Journal and Courier [Lafayette] June 28, 1974: 9. Print.
5 “Monticello Struggling to Recover” The Muncie Star [Muncie] March 30, 1975: 35. Print.
6 “Town Marks Comeback” The Times [Munster] April 3, 1977: 24. Print.