Marion County Courthouses- Indianapolis (1876 + 1962): Part One

The Indianapolis/Marion County City-County Building, built in 1962.

I really love Indiana’s courthouses. So much, that I want to marry them! Or be married in one- I can’t decide. I do know that I love them so much that I went to every last gol-durn one of them just to say I did, and took some photos along the way. So why I’d quit writing about them? Well, I got busy; really busy. A lot’s been going on here lately, but the thing that’s taken up the overwhelming majority of my time has been school.

School! I’ve got a terrible track record when it comes to this. In high school, I did alright- academic honors diploma achieved, thank you very much, over four years spent as a Blackhawk, a Minuteman, and a Burris Owl. But college was another story entirely. If you don’t believe me, ask frustrated admissions counselors at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, Ball State, and Western Governors’ University (ask both of them- I went there twice) where I majored in political science, journalism, and marketing. I’m inherently a bit of a contrarian, but as the years passed, I began to grudgingly admit to myself that the lack of a bachelor’s degree was seriously impeding my livelihood. I was just flat-out unhireable for what I wanted to do, despite all my cool projects and hobbies! How very millennial of me to say so.

Here’s another old postcard of mine that depicts the old courthouse.

But what wasn’t a millennial characteristic was to act: I learned of a workforce readiness grant in my state; concocted a ridiculous and convoluted scheme to get a certificate, associate’s, and bachelor’s degree all within about two years; and applied to our state’s vocational college. My bachelor’s degree will still be in marketing, but the classes I’m enrolled in now will give me some serious supply chain and logistics cred. So pardon my absence here while I find my footing with all of that.

It seems that supply chain and logistics management courses are a little too highfalutin’ for us backwoods Muncie types, and that’s how we find ourselves in Indianapolis today- my classes are all online, most hosted by the Indy campus of Ivy Tech. When I was a kid, we didn’t spend nearly as much time in the state’s capital as we did up in Fort Wayne, but I got very familiar with the city’s layout once my band started playing in town. Since Indy’s way bigger than Fort Wayne, it only stands to reason that we double that city’s throughput here at I’m splitting this post into two parts.

Here’s a second old postcard of the 1876 Marion County Courthouse, located in front of the present structure.

A couple of summers ago, I went downtown to take pictures of the City-County Building-the Marion County Courthouse. As I walked around in front of the $32-million skyscraper, I couldn’t help but consider the building it replaced. Although it was run-down and grimy upon its destruction more than fifty years ago, the ornate 1875 Marion Courthouse was truly a sight to behold at first. An Indianapolis Daily Sentinel editorial from 1876 went so far as to describe the structure as “one of the finest, handsomest and solidest piles in the West,” and “an enduring monument to the skill, integrity, and honesty of Isaac M. Hodson, the architect1.” The main entrance on Washington Street was framed by the Marion County coat of arms- a shelf supported by Ceres and Vulcan (representing the area’s agricultural and manufacturing prowess) with the motto “Spectemur Agenda” carved in the middle. “Let us be judged by our actions”.

The Floyd County Courthouse in New Albany- the precursor to Indy’s City-County Building.

The motto would prove ironic- like I said, the courthouse was a grimy old relic by the late 1950s, and officials jumped on the chance to demolish it. And fans of architecture have judged them by their actions ever since. I can’t say I blame them, though- the state legislature had just passed a resolution that authorized the creation of joint city and county building commissions, making the construction of consolidated government centers way easier than ever before. The communities of New Albany and Floyd County jumped at the chance for an upgrade, joining forces to demolish an entire block of historic buildings in exchange for a new City-County Building of their own2. Evidently pleased by the success of the county building beta test, Indianapolis and Marion County officials followed suit, tearing down the old courthouse in 1962 and constructing the monolith that we see today. Indianapolis was one of twelve cities across the country to set new records in building height over the previous seven years, and the new courthouse was the first building in town to rise above the venerable Soldiers and Sailors monument. Indianapolis, the crossroads of America by car and train, now had a stake in the jet age: the 373-foot tall skyscraper solidified the capital’s position of prominence.

The City-County Building features freestanding steel columns at its Washington Street entrance.

As uninspired as the building may seem today, it was a truly a statement more than fifty years ago. The International style, which rejects ornamentation while emphasizing volume and repetitive, modular forms, had rapidly gained prominence in Europe through the 1920s and 30, and it was rising in popularity across the Midwest. I’ll be the first to admit that the Thermopane insulated glass and vitrolux spandrels4 that make up the 28-story tower are maybe a tad bit less inspiring than other courthouses we’ve covered here, but details like the Indiana limestone and granite of the building’s flanking wings -as well as the six freestanding pillars that frame the building’s main entrance- do call back classic details found in more traditional courthouses.

Granite and Indiana limestone in the building’s wings reflect the styles of more historic courthouses.

As I drove home towards Muncie that day, my mind wandered back to the City-County Building’s demolished precursor.  The three-story courthouse was constructed in the French renaissance style and flush with robust details. Three prominent towers capped the building, along with eight enormous statues that represented commerce, law, justice, agriculture, and the four cardinal directions5. I wondered if anything had been saved from the building- my hometown of Muncie’s historic courthouse had been demolished in the 1960s, but preservationists managed to save a few statues that were now displayed on the grounds of the new structure. Officials in Madison County saved their old courthouse’s cornerstone when it was torn down around the same time and incorporated it into the new building’s promenade. A guy in Crawfordsville rescued the old courthouse clock from a scrap heap at the highway barn and restored it in his jewelry store. Hell, even officials in White County, whose old courthouse was leveled by a tornado, managed to save a piece of sculpture from its walls. Salvaging artifacts from old courthouses for placement at or around their replacements was extremely common practice.

Turns out, Indianapolis was no different. People were passionate about saving the old clock works, an endeavor that proved fruitless. Attention quickly turned towards rescuing the building’s eight statues, and a group was hastily formed on the eve of the final courthouse property auction. The group tried to ensure that the figures, which were expected to sell for $150-$175 each, didn’t fall into the hands of a private collector, but rumors indicated that a New York supermarket owner wanted them for himself6. Nevertheless, the preservation group was confident that an unnamed benefactor would buy the statues for relocation at Indianapolis’s Holliday Park, but the philanthropist died unexpectedly and the auction proceeded. Somehow, the committee succeeded in acquiring seven of the eight statues, and four of them ended up at the park as planned. So that’s where I found myself a few days later, the afternoon after I read about the effort.

Established in 1916, Holliday Park was created out of the country estate of an eponymous Indianapolis newspaperman. Though the grounds feature an expansive trail system, river frontage, and a large nature center, the centerpiece of the park is unquestionably the ruins, which is where the rescued statues stand.

The ruins at Holliday Park

What are the ruins? Well, they’re an art installation, I guess. In the 1950s, the Western Electric Company of New York announced plans to raze the city’s St. Paul Building and replace it with a modern skyscraper. But the company wanted Karl Bitter’s three monumental statues that adorned its entrance preserved, so they put together a competition for cities to submit bids for the statues. Indianapolis won. Local artist Elmer Taflinger headed the project and proposed reconstructing the building’s ledge and front wall to house the statues. The plan was approved, and he began to acquire elements of other demolished buildings to surround the structure. He rescued 26 Greek columns from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent, as well as two column capitals from the old Broadway Christian Church. The courthouse statues joined the installation, with two on each side of the reflecting pool.

A construction perimeter surrounds this headless, salvaged courthouse statue- an artifact from the ruins’ rehabilitation.

After years of work, the ruins were finally dedicated in 1973 at Mayor Richard Lugar’s aggravated behest. Problems soon became apparent, however- two reflecting pools sprung leaks, and it was easier to leave them dry than to fix them. Then, two of the courthouse statues were damaged, became unstable, and were removed and placed in storage. The ruins soon became truly ruinous, and a chain-link fence was erected around the area to ensure that no one got hurt. The ruins sat abandoned for about twenty years until a local group started a fundraiser to fix everything up. That was the state of the installation when I first went to take photos of the two remaining courthouse statues: black tarp walled the muddy area off, port-o-potties littered the little grass that remained, and it was less than a perfect environment for photography.

But can you really renovate ruins? It’s a bit of a ship of Theseus thing, right? I don’t really know- philosophy is far above my pay grade. What I do know is that, back in May and fresh on the way home from the courthouse in Crawfordsville and its new clock tower, I stopped at Holliday Park again to get some better pictures, one of which you see below. The area was wildly improved.

The second salvaged courthouse statue, watching the ruins from a distance.

But the temperature wasn’t! It was hot that day- so unbearably, ludicrously hot and humid, in fact, that kids were playing in the ruins’ restored fountains and I felt like I was going to gak. But I had another stop to make, this time in Crown Hill Cemetery. As I wound south down Spring Mill Road towards Illinois Street (past the Melody Inn dive bar- played there!), my attention turned again towards the old Indianapolis courthouse. Would I find enough in the cemetery to satiate my curiosity?

It turns out that I did, once I found the remaining statues. But we’ll talk about that next time.

Marion County (pop. 928,281)
Indianapolis ( pop. 852,866)
Built: 1962
Cost: $25.5 million ($201.9 million in 2016)
Architect: Allied Architects & Engineers
Style: International
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 372 feet
Current Use: City/county offices and courts
Photographed: 4/2/2016- 73/92

1 “Old Courthouse was Praised By Press” The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis). June 26, 1964. 9. Print.
2 “New Albany Builds Remedy for Decay” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] July 9, 1965: 1. Print
3 “Structure Sets New City High” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. July 27, 1961. Page 42. Print.
4 “Tallest and largest office in Indiana” The Republic {Columbus, IN} June 7, 1961. 11. Print.
5 “Group Seeks To Save Courthouse Statues” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. May 11, 1962. 16. Print
6 “Courthouse Demolition to Begin May 21” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. May 7, 1962: 21. Print
7 “History of the Ruins” Friends of Holliday Park. Web. Retrieved 6/22/18.

4 thoughts on “Marion County Courthouses- Indianapolis (1876 + 1962): Part One

  1. I am glad to see you back at it. The old-timers I have talked to over the years did not fondly recall the old building. I heard stories of rats and mold and reduced summer hours because of the unbearable heat. But that mid-century siren song of progress was not to be ignored.

    And the Melody Inn – a place co-workers and I would stop for the occasional after-work beer. I just drove by it yesterday, good to see it is still there.


  2. The Mel! Loved playing there a few times- it was an experience. The stage is barely big enough to get a stripped-down four-piece drum set on. Pretty sure I met Greg Garrison there once. He seemed (very) pleased to be there. But that was before the music started.


  3. Do you know anything about smaller salvaged items from the old Marion County Courthouse? I would love to know a little more about it. Your posts (that I happened upon when looking to see if I could find anything about it) are extremely interesting. I also looked pics of the demolition – and some photos of the building prior to the demo -on something called Indiana album by someone named Hendricks. Thanks.


    1. Hi! Thank you for reading- glad you found it interesting. Not sure I have any information about smaller items salvaged, but I could do some digging! Let me know if you find anything, too!


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