Here it is, boys, the granddaddy of all Indiana Courthouses- Allen County’s in Fort Wayne. Take a second to feast your eyes, because you won’t find one this magnificent anywhere else in the state. Heck, you won’t even find many state capitols at this level of opulence. Finished in 1902 at a cost of $817,000 (nearly $23.5 million today), the courthouse was designed to anticipate the needs of Allen County for at least a century as the crown jewel of Fort Wayne. Its completion was such a big deal that no less than Teddy Roosevelt, the President of the United States, was scheduled to speak at its dedication1.
Although Roosevelt was forced to cancel due to illness, his absence did not portend bad news for the courthouse. Even if its function as the seat of government has long been usurped, the building still stands proudly as a leading example of the Beaux Arts mode of architecture that rose to prominence after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There are other Beaux Arts courthouses in Indiana, but none of them remotely compare to Allen County’s. Bananas and humans share about 60% of their DNA, after all- it’s sort of like that2.
I don’t really like bananas (too stringy), but I do love county courthouses. Although I’ve been past this one hundreds of times and even been in it twice, it only takes one look to make an accurate assessment of its grandeur. The courthouse spans the width of an entire city block and its clock tower rises 239 feet above the surrounding square, capped by a 13.5-foot-tall Lady Liberty weather vane. Those dimensions are almost unheard of across our state’s portfolio of historic courthouses! More granularly, the rectangular building sits on a concrete foundation topped by a granite sill that supports a steel structural system3. The building’s mass is covered by blue Bedford limestone, from its rusticated ground floor up to the drum of the copper dome. Architecturally, the Beaux Arts style was a sort of exuberant mish-mash of influences, and Greek, Roman, and Renaissance inspirations are apparent from even a brief glance.
If all that wasn’t good enough, inside the building’s where it starts to get really interesting. After assisting his father with three courthouses across the state and designing three more of his own, architect Brentwood Tolan wanted the Allen County Courthouse to be his crowning achievement (spoiler alert: it is). Sparing no expense in decorating its interior, Tolan enlisted three of the most prominent muralists in the country to embellish the building’s rotunda and courtrooms4. Charles Holloway, the most famous of the trio, created gigantic, canvas murals that framed the art glass dome at the building’s core- “War,” “Joy & Peace,” “Despotism,” and “Law & Order.”
As if the murals and stained glass weren’t enough, the courthouse also features Italian carerra marble5, along with one of the most extensive examples of scagliola (a type of imitation marble) in the world. The building features 24 patterns and 28 colors of the decorative compound, made from hard gypsum mixed with marble dust and polished to a high gloss. The aesthetic effect of the entire interior of the courthouse is overwhelming –like dropping into the chocolate room at Willy Wonka’s factory- and I encourage you to immediately stop what you’re doing and go take a tour.
You’ll notice the obvious grandeur of the courthouse while on your tour, but it wasn’t in great shape as recently as twenty-five years ago. An interior restoration in the 1930s significantly damaged the murals, decorative ceilings, and scagliola, and by the late 1960s, the courthouse was just too small to keep up with the needs of the county. Its replacement, the 10-story City-County Building, was completed in 1971 and absorbed most government functions and offices from the old courthouse. Meanwhile, Fort Wayne went through significant changes as well. The successes of the post-World War II economic boom gave way to rapid deindustrialization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The city’s biggest employer, International Harvester, packed up and moved to Springfield, Ohio, which resulted in the loss of as many as 10,000 jobs6. With nowhere to work, residents moved out to the suburbs7, leaving the blighted, crime-ridden, downtown core –and the old courthouse- crumbling. The city’s last downtown department store closed up shop shortly after, always a bad sign.
All that occurred before I was born, but strong leadership in the City-County Building was able to right the ship in the 90s by emphasizing crime reduction and downtown redevelopment and working to broaden the scope of the city’s economy. I spent a lot of time in town as a kid, and this revitalized version of the city was the Fort Wayne of my youth. Under the auspices of renewal, a substantial, seriously-needed renovation of the courthouse began to take place.
In 1993, it was discovered that water leaking through the dome had weakened the glue holding Holloway’s murals to the walls of the rotunda. They were in significant danger of falling five stories to the floor if immediate fixes weren’t made, and a team of local officials, lawyers, and architects sprang into action by creating the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. The group secured funding to repair the damaged murals, but it soon became apparent that a total, head-to-toe restoration of the courthouse was in order. To that end, work began in 1994.
Restoring the courthouse was a huge project- the murals alone cost $1.4 million to repair and took more than two years to finish since the restoration had to be done at the snail’s pace of a single square inch at a time. Elsewhere across the building, the stained glass of the dome was cleaned, its steel framing was repaired, and the four courtrooms were restored along with their own art glass domes and light fixtures. Scagliola all over the building was repaired by an artisan called in from England8, and the building’s Italian marble was cleaned using a special process. To top it off, Lady Liberty was removed from the top of the courthouse dome, refurbished, and restored. The entire project cost $8.6 million, lasted eight years, and restored the building to its original beauty9.
I was lucky to get to tour the building in the midst of the restoration process, and the chance to observe its fine details up close amazed me. Multi-story scaffolding filled the entire rotunda right up to the murals, and we were able to walk across the structure to see Holloway’s work from mere feet away. A few years later, I got to attend the ceremony rededicating the restored courthouse on September 23, 2002. Though Teddy Roosevelt was again unable to attend, a hundred years to the day after the building was originally consecrated, his great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt came instead to deliver remarks. As a kid, both of those experiences made a huge impact on my burgeoning love of architecture.
Despite my love for the courthouse, especially after its renovation, I must admit that I might be a bit of a Summit City poser. I consider Fort Wayne my hometown, although I was neither born nor really raised there. Sure, we lived there for three years up until my parents got divorced; and yes, I did reside there during my freshman year of college. And let’s not forget all the time I spent in the city as a kid since most of my dad’s family lived in town. While many people look at a courthouse as a place to transact business, get sued, get married, or get sentenced, I was lucky to bypass all that and have the best one in the state serve as the passive backdrop to a lot of my memories over the years- not to mention see it up close in a way that not many people have! That experience was simply unreal. Fort Wayne’s my hometown, and this courthouse is my courthouse. It just happens to be the most regal in the entire Midwest. That’s all there is to it.
Now, I’ve said before that, as a kid, I believed the Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville was in its own category compared to every other courthouse in the state. But to me, Indiana only had 91 county seats. Fort Wayne’s didn’t count- it didn’t even enter the equation because any comparison with another courthouse would be intrinsically unfair.
I’ll let you make your own judgment. But in researching this post, looking through my photos, and reliving the memories of exploring the old courthouse while it underwent its restoration, I still believe that today. The Allen County Courthouse is unequivocally unmatched. Through the careful guidance of the building’s preservation trust, I’m sure that it will continue to remain without peer for another hundred and sixteen years.
Allen County (pop.363,014, 3/92)
Fort Wayne (pop. 256,496).
Cost: $817,553.19 ($22.58 million in 2016)
Architect: Brentwood S. Tolan
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 239 feet
Current use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 3/16/16 & 3/26/16
1 Doxsee, Donald. “A JEWEL HIDDEN IN THE MIDWEST” Fort Wayne. Self-Published, 2014. Print.
2 “How Genetically Related Are We to Bananas?” Get Science. Pfizer, Inc. 2002-2017. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Allen County Courthouse, Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana, National Register # 76000031.
4 “Doing our part for generations to come” The Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
5 “A Walking Tour of the Allen County Courthouse” Fort Wayne. Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.http://www.allencountycourthouse.org.
6 “Throwback Thursday: July 15, 1983 – Last truck rolls off line at Harvester plant” The Journal Gazette [Fort Wayne]. June 29, 2017. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
7 Beatty, John D. History of Fort Wayne & Allen County. Evansville, Indiana: M.T. Publishing Company, Inc. 2006. Print.
8 “Courthouse preservation group awarded for restoration work” WANE [Fort Wayne]. September 13, 2015. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
9 Enyart, David. “Allen County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.