As fearful as I was of it happening early on, I never got confronted by anyone on my courthouse project while I was actually taking photos. I’d read horror stories about real photographers escorted away from government buildings by suspicious local officials, and I was worried it would happen to me- especially due to my generally-unkempt appearance. With hair like a dirty artichoke and a beard like I ate a box of Milk Duds before I made out with a cat, I’m a little surprised that I didn’t arise any suspicion, to be honest. But it finally happened in LaGrange during my second trip there.
We’ll get to that, but first things first: The courthouse. To me, the LaGrange County Courthouse is my mental archetype for a courthouse- it has been ever since we frequently drove past it en route to my dad’s nearby. Every time I see a fictional courthouse in a movie or on TV, I instantly compare it to this one- I can’t help it. Red brick? Mansard roof? Clock tower? Dome? The Hill Valley courthouse from Back to the Future doesn’t have any of it. Okay- it’s got a clock. But citizens were a little late in saving the clock tower, even in 1955, because there isn’t one! In fact, it never had one, per the end of Back to the Future 3. Courthouses in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bruce Almighty, and Ghost Whisperer don’t make the grade either, which isn’t surprising, I guess, since they all used the same set.
Maybe Hollywood should have ghost-whispered T.J. Tolan back from the grave to design that area of the studio, since he was responsible for LaGrange’s beautiful courthouse, as well as Rockville’s, Warsaw’s, and at least four others around the midwest. But of his portfolio, the LaGrange County Courthouse stands out due to its unique design. Two stories, the building is rectangular, with four corner pavilions- each with a mansard roof and dormer windows. A low, hipped roof supports a square clock tower that rises 125 feet above the ground and contains the original, 1878 bell and clock works2. Of the other courthouses in the state, I’d say that its closest match is Elkhart County’s in Goshen, which features similar elements of Georgian styling. Maybe I just mentally associate the two since I used to see them both nearly every other weekend.
I’d originally gone to LaGrange County -and Goshen- on the first trip of my rebooted project back in 2015; they were the fifth and sixth courthouses I stopped at as part of a conscious effort to start the project over with photos of courthouses from my childhood. It was a weird experience being up in Michiana without seeing my dad. Furthermore, it was summer and the oppressive foliage of each courthouse square made getting photos of the buildings themselves especially difficult.
The current courthouse replaced a frame courthouse in Lima, as well as a second frame courthouse erected in LaGrange when the county seat moved in 18433. Although it’s predominantly brick, the courthouse has a limestone foundation separated from the walls by a sandstone sill. Only a few, minor, modifications have been made over the years. Exterior entrances to public bathrooms were added on the north and south sides of the building, as well as a small storage area that’s been cribbed to the basement stairs. Aside from being covered in trees, the courtyard also features a replica of the original bandstand. A decorative iron fence has long since been removed from the square, as has a windmill originally used to provide water the courthouse4.
The entire square is extraordinarily picturesque, actually. Brick streets line three sides of it (Detroit Street carries IN-9 and is asphalt), and the western edges of the square feature real-life, honest-to-God hitching posts for the county’s vast Amish constituency (37% of county residents are of the fellowship5). Charming and quaint as it was, I must admit that I was quickly exposed to the practical disadvantages of brick streets used in conjunction with transportation by horse-and-buggy. All those keister cakes have to go somewhere, which seemed to be the joints between each brick. I’m not sure if tuckpointing can be done on old brick roads, but something is definitely needed in LaGrange. It would not have shocked me if MIller’s Food & Drug down the road was out of clothespins. Personally, I got out of there quickly after taking my photos and didn’t bother to check.
I took photos of fourteen courthouses that day. When I finally got home to review what I’d taken, I realized that I’d only shot twelve of the courthouse. Not a lot to choose from- and none that documented the building as well as I’d intended to. Photos I took in Goshen had the same problem due to the surrounding trees- I’d have to go back.
But I didn’t want to go back and retake the somewhat serviceable photos I already had while there were other courthouses in the state I could be discovering instead. I finally made it back almost three years later during the waning winter months of 2018. My intent was to redo photos in LaGrange and Goshen while there weren’t any trees to obstruct the buildings. I made it to LaGrange first, got out of my car, and began to traipse around the square, looking for the angles I’d missed. And that’s when it happened: suddenly, a small voice called out to me from behind. “Beautiful building,” a woman said.
I was a little caught off-guard, my awkwardness in social settings notwithstanding. I’d been to every historic courthouse in the state and no one had as much as said hello. I whirled around. “Yes, it sure is,” I belched out.
The curious bystander was an old woman out walking her dog. She asked if I was from around there, and I said no, although I did live in Elkhart for a time. I explained the project in its most briefest terms, and that I’d been here already but was taking more photos. “You know who has a really gorgeous courthouse,” she said. “Van Wert- in Ohio.”
That’s another T.J. Tolan design, and I’d actually been there yesterday. “I was actually there yesterday,” I said. “The same guy actually designed it as this one.”
She sort of slightly smiled and did a half-nod, before turning around to check on her dog. I have trouble remembering that most people aren’t as enthused about the family tree of midwestern courthouses as I am, and she seemed eager to jet. My brief companion and I said our goodbyes, and she trundled off back to her house as her dog finished his yellow masterpiece. That was easy, I sighed, a harmless old lady. Not a SWAT team rappelling down from the golden clock tower dome as I’d expected. I didn’t even have to use my long-practiced justification that my photos were for a school project (they weren’t). Good thing, too-I’m nearing thirty now, and that’d be even more suspicious.
I didn’t hustle to make it out of LaGrange as quickly as I did on my previous trip: it seemed as if the impacted slush and ice on the brick streets made plowing away all the horse crap a lot easier than during the summer when it’d get ingrained in the joints. I took a minute or so to circle the block and really appreciate the view that the leafless trees offered me. Other courthouses might be a closer fit to the profile of geopolitical scheming so common in early state politics, and others might have more interesting stories. Others might be more opulent, and still others might truly suck in their lack of inspiration. At the end of the day, they’re all just places to get married, get sued, or pay taxes. But to me, LaGrange County’s courthouse still represents the most archetypical of any found in our state, and will remain my mental model of what a courthouse should look like. Even if I have to answer an old lady’s questions about it from time to time.
Lagrange County (pop. 37,128, 42/92)
Lagrange (pop. 2,625).
Cost: $71,675 ($1.83 million in 2016)
Architect: Thomas & Brentwood S. Tolan
Style: Georgian/Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 125 feet
Current use: county offices and courts
Photographed 8/15/15 and 2/18/18
1 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 21, 2018.
2 National Register of Historic Places, LaGrange County Courthouse, LaGrange, LaGrange County, Indiana, National Register # 80000042.
3 Counties of LaGrange and Noble, Indiana: Historical and Biographical. F.A. Battey & Company: Chicago.1882.
4 Ford, Ira. History of Northeast Indiana. The Lewis Publishing Company: Chicago. 1920.
5 “DP03 SELECTED ECONOMIC CHARACTERISTICS – 2006-2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates”. United States Census Bureau. Web. Retrieved July 21, 2018.