Six-year-old me spent a lot of time in the back seat traveling across the state to a family Christmas here or an Easter there, and the historic courthouses I’d see downtown made a huge impression. Once we got to my grandparents’ houses in Fort Wayne or Pendleton, I’d find some continuous-feed paper, peel the edges off, and get to work drawing the courthouses we’d passed on the way there. I was obviously enthusiastic, but even at that young age I knew that Indiana courthouses broke down into two categories: there were courthouses, and then there were COURTHOUSES. And the only fully-capitalized COURTHOUSE in my mind at the time was the one in Noblesville- Hamilton County. Forget Fort Wayne’s- it was on another spectrum entirely. But I remember seeing this gorgeous building countless times, and I drew it incessantly.
Back then, Hamilton County was still pretty rural and Noblesville was, by far, its largest city. But times have changed. Nowadays, the county leads the state in population growth (increasing 13% since 20101) and wealth, boasting an average household income of $79,0002– nearly twice the median household income across the state per the Census. All this wealth and expansion has forced communities around the county to undergo dramatic changes in the past few years.
I’m only 27, but I feel like an old-timer dusting off fragmented memories of cornfields whenever I find myself stuck on the Exit 205 off-ramp, surrounded by IKEA, Topgolf, and a Portillo’s. None of that existed even two years ago when I was making a daily commute to offices in neighboring Fishers and Carmel, but the area was already packed with development. Ten years earlier, the only thing five miles out was an Amish furniture store in an otherwise-empty strip mall.
But downtown Noblesville has thankfully managed to avoid the expansion and aggravating theme of New Urbanism that defines the new downtown cores of Fishers and Carmel, and the county’s crown jewel is still Noblesville’s 1879 Second Empire courthouse- despite all the changes that surround it. Why would the newer communities try for such a fake, appropriated image of the past when they had a true one right next door in Noblesville?
A lot of people like it, but I’d rather have the old courthouse. Designed by Edwin May, the building was –and still is, in many ways- without peer among the state’s courthouse portfolio. May probably knew this would be the case. A prolific architect, he drew up plans for nine county courthouses, as well as the Indiana State House. But he got fired on the Hamilton County project after a feud with the building contractor, A.G. Campfield. Ostensibly, May thought Campfield was skimping out on cost and materials for the building’s foundation, but the dispute probably ran deeper: it seems that Campfield was an associate of a guy named E.E. Myers, a competing architect who lost to May the race to design the State Capitol and subsequently sued him3.
At any rate, county officials brought in J.C. Johnson to finish the project, and he did a number on May’s design by changing nearly all of the courthouse’s exterior ornamentation. Johnson was an extremely well-known Ohio architect, but is better known to readers of this blog for his dismal failure in clock tower design. All four of his local courthouses ended up decapitated, including three in Indiana and one in Defiance, Ohio.
The courthouse features a replica clock tower, built in 1968.
The building looks great now, but that wasn’t always the case. For starters, yes, that clock tower is a replica- albeit a very good one. The original lasted longer than its Johnson-designed peers, but the tower was unstable by 1968 and in danger of toppling over. Residents began a push to tear the old building down completely until a contractor reproduced the tower with modern materials. Thank you, nameless contractor! But unfortunately, that solution was only temporary and led to two years of additional issues which were finally resolved when the tower was covered with lead-coated copper4, restoring it to a functional, if drab, state.
The clock tower saga wasn’t the old courthouse’s only trip to rehab. Just 25 years after it was built, the interior received a major refresh in the form of marble floors and a new heating system5. Then, in the late 1940s, the county added a third story within the building by dropping the second-floor ceilings. In 1957, an elevator was added. Then came that pesky, recurring issue with the clock tower. To top it all, county business was picking up by the late 1980s and it became apparent that, despite all the fixes, the old courthouse was no longer large enough to effectively do its job. Officials moved out -and eventually in- to a new, 200,000-square-foot justice center that opened in 19926.
Details like the chimneys and dormer windows on the mansard roof were restored in 1994.
It would have been easy for commissioners to give up on the structure right then and there. In stark contrast to the gleaming justice center across the street, the old courthouse looked exhausted- see it in that state here. Over the years, most of the ornamentation had been removed from the building’s mansard roof. Chimneys were lopped off, as were dormer windows, statuary, and decorative iron railings that graced its roofline. The clock tower had faded to a gloomy, monochromatic gray.
But instead of demolishing the elderly building, commissioners had a better plan. $4 million was committed to fund a full restoration of the courthouse. Work started just as the county’s population began to explode, and the project yielded some interesting information about the courthouse like the archaic attempts at soundproofing when the building was first constructed. Now, I’m a working session musician. I’ve spent many hours in the recording studio, and I guess I take for granted all the modern methods to make a room silent. But in 1879, workers didn’t have access to those means. They had to resort to packing five inches of dirt between the floors to try for silence in the courtrooms!
It’s funny, but now the old rooms have no reason to be soundproofed. Ever since essential county functions moved out 26 years ago, the courthouse has mostly acted as an architectural showcase for the county- a showcase I got to tour as a kid, thanks to an aunt who lived nearby and recognized my enthusiasm for it. Post-renovation, the building was beautiful. The chimneys, windows, and railings had been put back on the building’s roof, and the restored clock tower seemed to glow in the afternoon sun. When I took photos of it nearly twenty years later, it was still a stunner. Just like Carmen Electra is today.
The courthouse and surrounding square are true gems in Hamilton County as elements of a downtown that grew organically. Chances are, your county seat grew that way too. Once Noblesville was platted and a courthouse was built to anchor the middle of it, businesses sprang up around the square in response to the community’s needs and wants. As the city grew, new amenities replaced old ones, all the way up to the most important facility- the courthouse.
This 1879 structure was Noblesville’s third, and the county justice center that replaced it will soon welcome an enormous, $25 million addition to allow it to keep up with the times after only twenty-five years in service7. Early in Noblesville’s history, all of this happened naturally. None of it was sponsored, none of it was funded with TIFs, and certainly none of it was dictated. Design and branding standards for a community were not things that existed!
The old Hamilton County jail and sheriff’s residence stands at the southwestern corner of the courthouse square. It was being renovated when I was there.
But oh, how times have changed, and if only surrounding communities in the county were able to follow the same trajectory. Inorganic, prescribed growth is exactly what makes driving through the nearby Disneyland of Carmel’s City Center or downtown Fishers so disconcerting and repulsive.
Neither were towns of any significance throughout most of their history- their growth from stops on the railroad to inauthentic bedroom communities was forced due to the influx of residents in the area as well as the highfalutin aspirations of their principals. I wish that both cities had the foresight to look towards their county’s courthouse square in Noblesville before they started expensive quests to turn acres of farmland into perfect, generic, suburban downtowns.
The courthouse stands as a repudiation of the county’s contemporary growth exemplified in Carmel and Fishers.
Nevertheless, there are some of us who can still tell the difference and appreciate a true downtown anchored by a courthouse instead of some some distasteful, manufactured, pastiche. I hope the old courthouse in Noblesville continues to inspire an appreciation of real architecture for years to come. Even from otherwise-boring drives home from my Aunt Jan’s house, it definitely did so with me.
Hamilton County (pop. 309,697, 4/92)
Noblesville (pop. 60,183).
Cost: $101,604 ($2.69 million in 2016)
Architect: Edwin May; J.C. Johnson.
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 145 feet
Current Use: County offices
1 “Hamilton County’s population growth is fastest in Indiana” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]: May 22, 2016. Web. Retrieved 3/25/18.
2 “Hamilton County among nation’s wealthiest” WTHR [Indianapolis]. August, 26, 2016. Web. Retrieved 3/25/18.
3 Enyart, David. “Hamilton County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 3/25/18.
4 “Courthouse” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville]. June 26, 1992: 11. Print.
5 “Controversy never far from Courthouse” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville]. June 26, 1992: 1. Print.
6 “Envisioning a new look for our courthouse” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville]. February 13, 1993: 2. Print.
7 “Hamilton County to spend $38.6M to expand jail, judicial center” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. December 12, 2017. Web. Retrieved 3/25/18.