Adams County- Decatur (1872-)

The Adams County Courthouse in Decatur.

Imagine an era before you had a phone in your pocket or feverishly clutched in your hand. How would you tell time? Well, you’d probably use a watch. But what about before that? A sundial? That’s going a little too far back- put yourself in the shoes of an 1800s Hoosier, not an Egyptian.

Unfortunately, you didn’t really have a great option for personal timekeeping. To help you, your city erected a clock tower that you could easily see from anywhere in town. Normally, these clock towers were built to sprout out of the most prominent building in the town, which was almost always the county courthouse. Not only did it make telling time possible, but the courthouse clock tower also served as a landmark for your fellow settlers coming in from far and wide to wheel, deal, and conduct business in the county seat.


If only those clock towers weren’t so hard to get right! Indiana is littered with counties that have been forced to decapitate their courthouses over the years due to natural disasters or structural problems. Although you wouldn’t know it today at first glance, Adams County’s in Decatur is one of them. Its architect, J.C. Johnson, seemed particularly awful at designing clock towers- both of his Indiana courthouses in Winchester and Decatur eventually had theirs taken down, as did his courthouse in Defiance, Ohio. I guess that’s what’s bound to happen when you’re a self-taught courthouse architect-It’s the reason I don’t do it myself1.

He didn’t really have a choice to include them, though. In the 1870s, an architectural style called “county capitol” was spreading across the state2. In order to create a scaled-down version of a typical state capitol building, clock towers were designed to rise from the middle of the building rather than the front. Johnson really liked this concept, and although his courthouse in Defiance had already been completed with a front clock tower, he used it on both his Indiana courthouses.

The courthouse was originally designed in the ‘county capital’ style.

We’ve talked at length about the Randolph County Courthouse, which features a restored clock tower and mansard roof in the county capitol style, but wait- the Adams County Courthouse doesn’t! Its clock tower is right above the front door, not in the middle of the roof. Something must have happened to cause that- there’s a mystery afoot! Let’s pause for a moment while I get out my deerstalker, magnifying glass, and a calabash pipe.

A bubble pipe will have to do for now, but that’s fine since this mystery was far easier to solve than the great Henry County Courthouse Clock Tower Caper of ’18. It turns out that sticking a massive clock tower above a large, open courtroom wasn’t the best idea- the vast chamber couldn’t support the weight of the tower even though much of the attic was –and is still- taken up by brick bearing walls and steel bridgework to help. County officials finally realized this –after 28 years- in 1900 and demolished the clock tower, dropping the courtroom ceiling in the process and inadvertently concealing intricate murals that graced the room. By 1902, they’d hired Fort Wayne architects Wing & Mahurin to complete a new front tower3, which is what we see today in one of the earliest examples of a sympathetic addition to a historic Indiana courthouse.

The 1902 clock tower of the 1872 courthouse.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any photos left of the courthouse with its center tower. But if I had to guess (I am an expert after all), I’d imagine it looked like a cross between the building’s current tower and the replacement tower on Johnson’s other courthouse in Winchester. Both towers are formed by three segments: The first is a base, of course. The second segment provides most of the height and features three rectangular louvered panels, each capped by a rounded arch and topped by an oculus. A heavy, modillioned cornice separates that tier from the top section, which holds a central clock face in an arched surround that projects slightly from an elongated dome. The dome is crowned by a cupola and flagpole. I think the only difference between those two and the original tower would be with regards to materials: the Adams County Courthouse’s old clock tower was constructed of heavy brick, while Randolph County’s is composed of prefabricated aluminum to avoid the structural requirements necessitated by a centrally-located tower4.

The Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville.

Aside from the ill-fated clock tower, J.C. Johnson definitely got the rest of the building right. It shares a lot of details with his other two courthouses in the area, as well as the 1879 Hamilton County Courthouse (he was brought in to finish that one after the original architect was fired). And yes, before you ask- that clock tower had to be replaced too, in 19685. This poor guy and his stupid clock towers!

All of those buildings feature Berea Sandstone accents that sharply contrast their red brick massing6, but Decatur’s are my favorite. The projecting entry mass of the east facade features alternating carved quoins and keystones that the building’s National Register of Historic Places applications calls “vermiculated”. According to Google, vermiculated means “carved or molded with shallow wavy grooves resembling the tracks of worms.” I’d say that’s a pretty apt description of how the quoins appear, and it was fun to learn a new word.

Vermiculated quoins frame the front entry projection of the courthouse.

Those worm-eaten quoins aren’t the only places that sandstone shows up to accentuate the building, though. A sandstone belt course separates the first two stories of the courthouse, and windows on both stories are encased in sandstone surrounds. Normal quoins cover the building’s other corners, and we’ve also got a rough-hewn sandstone foundation and a sandstone front porch. Overall, the effect is quite pleasing, and maybe a little irreverent.

Up top is the building’s mansard roof, which features dormer windows and sits on another prominent, metal cornice. Above that rises the aforementioned front-facing clock tower. The outside of the building really hasn’t changed much in the 116 years since the tower was reconfigured, but some alterations are apparent. For starters, the building’s front doors are obviously part of a modern, glass-and-metal, renovation but don’t really take away from its overall appearance. Former entryways on the north and south sides of the courthouse were bricked in to provide room for more offices. A tiny, flat-roofed addition was added to the north side at some point to provide an entrance to the basement. Like I said, the changes were minimal.

A bricked-up north entryway (partially obscured by a tree) is still relatively harmonious with the rest of the courthouse.

Adams County’s desire for historic preservation and adaptive reuse don’t end with the historic courthouse, though. When the county’s needs became too great for the old building, officials took over the town’s library, a neoclassical structure erected in 1905 just southwest of the courthouse. Later, officials expanded into the old Decatur High School when they created the Adams County Service Complex, which houses a fitness center and the local parks department among other things. What can I say- the amount of architectural conservation is inspiring. I love this town!

The Service Complex rents their old gym out by the hour7, so you’d better have your phone handy to tell when it’s time to leave or pay up. But imagine again that you didn’t. Even though you’d be in the woeful throes of smartphone separation anxiety, you’d have no choice but to run down South 3rd Street to check the time on the courthouse clock. As you did, I’d hope you’d say a silent thanks to J.C. Johnson, John Wing, and Marshall Mahurin for providing the clock tower for you- it definitely wasn’t easy!

Adams County (pop. 34,614, 45/92)
Decatur (pop. 9,418).
18/92 photographed
Built: 1872, remodeled in 1902
Cost: $100,000 ($2 million in 2016)
Architect: J. C. Johnson; Wing & Mahurin
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 160 feet
Current use: Some county offices and some courts
Photographed: 8/16/15

1 Dilts, Jon. The Magnificent 92 Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1999. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 19, 2018.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Adams County Courthouse, Decatur, Adams County, Indiana, National Register # 8000914.
4 “Why Purchase a Campbellsville Steeple?” Materials. Campbellsville Industries, Incorporated, 2004. Web. March 19, 2018.
5 “Courthouse” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville] June 26,1992:11. Print.
6 Tyndall, John W. Standard History of Adams and Wells Counties, Indiana. Chicago. The Lewis Publishing Company: 1918. Print.
7 Neddenriep, Kyle. Historic Hoosier Gyms: Discovering Bygone Basketball Landmarks. Charleston. The History Press. 2010. Print.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s